Autonomic control of the heart during exercise in humans: role of skeletal muscle afferents

James P Fisher

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

39 Citations (Scopus)
588 Downloads (Pure)


NEW FINDINGS: What is the topic of this review? The autonomic nervous system plays a key role in bringing about the cardiovascular responses to exercise necessitated by the increased metabolic requirements of the active skeletal muscle. The complex interaction of central and peripheral neural control mechanisms evokes a decrease in parasympathetic activity and an increase sympathetic activity to the heart during exercise. What advances does it highlight? This review presents some of the recent insights provided by human studies into the role of mechanically and metabolically sensitive skeletal muscle afferents in the regulation of cardiac autonomic control during exercise. The autonomic responses to exercise are orchestrated by the interactions of several central and peripheral neural mechanisms. This report focuses on the role of peripheral feedback from skeletal muscle afferents in the autonomic control of the heart during exercise in humans. Heart rate responses to passive calf stretch are abolished with cardiac parasympathetic blockade, indicating that the activation of mechanically sensitive skeletal muscle afferents (muscle mechanoreceptors) can inhibit cardiac parasympathetic activity and is likely to contribute to the increase in heart rate at the onset of exercise. Recent experiments show that the partial restriction of blood flow to the exercising skeletal muscles, to augment the activation of metabolically sensitive skeletal muscle afferents (muscle metaboreceptors) in humans, evokes an increase in heart rate that is attenuated with β1-adrenergic blockade, thus suggesting that this response is principally mediated via an increase in cardiac sympathetic activity. Heart rate remains at resting levels during isolated activation of muscle metaboreceptors with postexercise ischaemia following hand grip, unless cardiac parasympathetic activity is inhibited, whereupon a sympathetically mediated increase in heart rate is unmasked. During postexercise ischaemia following leg cycling exercise, heart rate appears to remain elevated due to withdrawal of parasympathetic tone and/or the activation of sympathetic activity to the heart. Although the importance of skeletal muscle afferent feedback to the autonomic control of the heart during exercise is incontrovertible, the complexity of cardiac sympathetic-parasympathetic interactions and the absence of direct intraneural recordings in humans mean that it remains incompletely understood.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)300-5
Number of pages6
JournalExperimental Physiology
Issue number2
Early online date2 Oct 2013
Publication statusPublished - Feb 2014


  • Animals
  • Autonomic Nervous System
  • Exercise
  • Heart
  • Heart Rate
  • Humans
  • Muscle, Skeletal
  • Neurons, Afferent


Dive into the research topics of 'Autonomic control of the heart during exercise in humans: role of skeletal muscle afferents'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this