Many devices help change how we approach fitness and health. Many people have smartwatches, and they use these to track their health data: heart rate, steps taken, and sleep. Heart rate (HR) and heart rate variability (HRV) have become buzzwords recently, and tracking both of these metrics has benefits. Monitoring heart rate variability and heart rate correctly is essential, as this data can give you valuable information about your body.
What Is Your Heart Rate?
Your heart rate is measured in how many beats your heart beats per minute and does not require precise times, just an average of the heartbeats in a certain period. As an example, if your heart rate is 60 beats per minute, that doesn’t mean that your heart is beating exactly once each second; instead, it could mean that there is an average of one beat occurring every half second, then every one and a half seconds, and so on for an average of 60 times in a minute. Measuring heart rate has been a simple test for many years because it’s easy to track without fancy, high-tech equipment. Generally, a higher heart rate occurs when the body is under stress like exercise, physiological, or mental stress; a lower heart rate occurs while the body is at rest and not stressed.
Your body controls your heartbeats automatically, which varies to match your exercise level or what is happening in your environment. If you’re scared, excited, or active, your heart will beat faster, making your heart rate measurement higher, and when you’re calm, resting, and comfortable, your heart rate will drop. It can be an essential indicator of a person’s overall health, and if your heart rate is too slow or fast, it can point to health or heart problems. While many people are aware of their pulse, they assume it is the same as your heart rate, but that’s not true. Your pulse is how you can feel your heart rate, and your heart rate is the actual measurement of how fast your heart is beating while it’s being measured.
What Is Heart Rate Variability?
Heart rate is precise and focuses on how many average heartbeats occur per minute; heart rate variability (HRV) measures the variance in time between heartbeats in a specific time period, generally a minute. This variance in time between the heartbeats is referred to as an “R-R interval” or “inter-beat interval” (IBI) and is measured in milliseconds. Heart rate variability measures the variability or time between successive heartbeats, while heart rate focuses on the average beats per minute. People with lower HRV (which coincidentally means less variation in between heartbeats) are usually under more stress than those with higher heart rate variability, and the stress can be physiological, physical, emotional, or mental. Having a higher HRV means a more significant variation between heartbeats, which can indicate that the body is more capable of tolerating or properly handling stress.
When the body is resting, having a lower heart rate variability is undesirable, and a higher heart rate variability is more desirable. A higher HRV can be undesirable if the body is active, while a lower HRV is more desirable. Heart rate variability is a term that brings together multiple analysis methods and calculations. When the calculations are performed correctly, the health of the autonomic nervous system can be assessed.
HRV and the Autonomic Nervous System
The autonomic nervous system (ANS) is linked to all of the body’s automatic processes and contains two main branches that help control the body’s recovery and stress responses. The autonomic nervous system is responsible for regulating blood pressure, blood sugar, body temperature, digestion, sweat, and respiration, in addition to other processes. Heart rate variability tracking can help you understand the health of your autonomic nervous system, especially when you’re trying to identify obstacles, measure progress, or attain specific goals.
Because the autonomic nervous system is so intricately connected to many biological processes and systems, HRV also ties cardiovascular activity to the digestive, respiratory, and other stress and recovery-related systems. Heart rate variability looks at the changes between heartbeats; it’s more challenging to measure than heart rate. However, with all the wearable tracking devices available, there’s an easy way for most people to track their heart rate variability in real-time.
Heart Rate vs. Heart Rate Variability
While the terms sound almost identical, there is a definite difference between heart rate and heart rate variability, and both have a lot of merit for tracking and understanding. There are pros and cons to both heart rate and heart rate variability. Some of the pros and cons of tracking heart rate include the following:
- Ability to be measured during exercise
- Easily measured
- It can be used to target specific heart rate zones
- It doesn’t need extreme accuracy
- A good gauge for cardiovascular exertion
- Many devices available to track heart rate
- Mainly limited to measuring cardiovascular activity
- When taken at rest, heart rate can be inconsistent
- The accuracy of wearable devices varies widely
Some of the pros and cons of tracking heart rate variability include the following:
- The most accurate non-invasive measurement of the health of the autonomic nervous system
- Integrates the cardiovascular system, respiratory system, and nervous system
- Increase ability to detect digestive, psychological, environmental, and physical stressors
- Can be measured by consumer-grade heart rate monitors
- Can be measured in 2 minutes per day for 95% of the benefit
- It helps train the nervous system and brain to operate at peak performance
- Hard to measure while moving or during an exercise program
- The accuracy of wearable monitors is sometimes unknown
- If not appropriately presented, HRV measurements can confuse people
When Do You Track Heart Rate and Heart Rate Variability?
Now that you know there are benefits and drawbacks to measuring both heart rate and heart rate variability, you may want to track them, but you aren’t sure when it would be appropriate to track both. If you’re looking to track your cardiovascular exertion during exercise in real-time, it would be best to track your heart rate.
If you’re looking for more information about your overall health, nervous system capabilities, and ability to tolerate stress, you may want to measure your heart rate variability. It’s best measured during a rested state and is most accurate when taken while the body is calm.
You can measure heart rate variability each day to track how your body handles stress at any given time. Heart rate variability is most commonly used to customize a person’s training program and tailor it to their personal health. HRV can be tracked over time by apps on your phone, and it can be useful in determining how different lifestyle choices affect physical performance and health.
The Benefits of Tracking Heart Rate and Heart Rate Variability
If you’re working out, knowing your heart rate can be extremely helpful in knowing if it’s in the target zone for cardiovascular performance when you have athletic goals. When you’re doing cardio, having your heart rate in a specific zone can get your blood pumping, so you reap the most benefits from the training and workout.
Intense exercise places a large amount of stress on the body, leading to a higher level of physiological stress, which is more likely to be captured by heart rate variability measurements. HRV can track acute drops following high-intensity workouts, lasting up to 48 hours after you stop exercising. Combining HRV with other various parameters, you can better understand the big picture of the body’s health and see how an athlete is adapting to a specific training program.
Track Your Heart Rate Metrics
Whether you work out a lot or are interested in how well your body handles stress, tracking your heart rate and heart rate variability can be very helpful. Utilizing a wearable tracking device can be a very simple way to track these metrics, and you really won’t notice any disruption in your daily activities while wearing these devices. Tracking your heart rate and heart rate variability can give you clues to the overall health of your autonomic nervous system, which can help you make changes to impact your health positively. Start tracking your heart rate metrics today and see how it positively affects your life!