Heart rate variability is quickly becoming a popular metric in the longevity space used to inform individuals about their body’s response to stress. Heart rate variability (HRV) measures the fluctuation of time between your heartbeats. This variance between heartbeats is incredibly small, happening within milliseconds, though it can indicate current or future health problems. When your heart rate variability (HRV) is low, you may be dealing with depression, anxiety, or even cardiovascular disease. While it's not the only indicator of your health, it's good to keep an eye on your HRV and try to get it within an ideal range. Fortunately with modern technology you can check your HRV at home and monitor it over long periods of time.
How Do I Check My HRV?
Since the variances in heart rate are typically very small and not noticeable to the untrained eye, there is special equipment or devices that accurately detect HRV. An electrocardiogram (EKG) machine is used to determine heart rate variability within a medical setting. This device uses sensors attached to the skin of the chest and measures the heart's electrical activity. This is highly accurate, and health care providers can even send you home with monitoring equipment that can track your HRV over an extended period of time. When measuring HRV, it can be monitored from a few minutes to 24 hours or longer. The comprehensive monitoring times generally give the best data.
Recent advancements in technology have provided devices that can be used outside of the medical setting. Some of them consist of devices attached to a band that wraps around a chest, and some appear similar to pulse oximeters that are more accurate and sensitive. While most wrist-worn fitness devices and trackers can accurately detect your heart rate through your skin, some of them aren't sensitive enough to detect heart rate variability accurately. Among the myriad of wearables, Oura Ring and Biostrap both have excellent devices to track HRV.
How Do I Make My HRV Reading Accurate?
In order to get accurate HRV readings, you can follow a few simple tips to make sure you're getting the most accurate reading possible. It's best to measure while at rest and not exercising. Using a highly accurate monitor will yield the best results. There are some misconceptions surrounding HRV which may be misleading:
- Thinking a low reading is immediately a bad thing. Chronically low HRV is definitely not favorable, but a few low readings aren't going to be the worst. Sometimes acute HRV drops can be beneficial as long as HRV returns to normal or better levels. For instance, if a HRV drops after an intense workout, that can be a normal response. It's when it doesn't return to baseline or better within a few days that is a cause for concern.
- Secondly, assuming a high reading is always good is not an accurate assessment. Similar to the fact that a low HRV reading isn't necessarily bad, a high HRV reading isn't always good. It can mean something is off if a single HRV measurement is abnormally high compared to the individual's normal HRV. Sometimes, a stimulated immune system can increase heart rate variability in times of mild illnesses. This is actually good for recovery from the disease but shouldn't be seen as an increase in health.
- If the body is in a constant state of stress, you may not get accurate readings. When the body is consistently in fight-or-flight mode, it can cause a low HRV or even inaccurate readings. Due to the stress, the measurement may be skewed and not capture the typical state. For example, if you're having a less stressful day, the reading may be more favorable on that day versus one where you're really stressed.
What is a Good HRV Score For My Age?
There are some general guidelines of what's normal per age group. As people age, their HRV tends to get lower naturally. While there are some average HRV ranges defined for age groups, HRV is influenced by a number of individual factors. If your HRV score doesn’t align completely with these group averages it isn’t immediately a sign of poor or better health. Factors affecting HRV include genetics, your general autonomic nervous system’s health, diet, exercise and even mental health. The average heart rate variability for men of all ages is 65, and 62 for women. For 25-year-olds, the average is 78; for 35-year-olds, it's 60; for 45-year-olds, it's 48, and 55-year-olds have an average HRV score of 44. These averages have been taken from people who tend to be more health-conscious, so if your ranges fall within these averages, it would be reasonable to assume you've got a pretty healthy HRV. By working on improving your autonomic nervous system’s health, diet, exercise, and getting good quality sleep, an HRV value can be improved.
What is a Bad HRV Score For My Age?
While a bad HRV score is pretty subjective, a score significantly lower than the ranges listed above for your age group could indicate poor health. Everyone's HRV can vary widely depending on internal and external elements. There are different factors that can impact heart rate variability, including:
- If a person is diabetic
- Has heart or cardiovascular diseases
- Has lung or renal diseases
- Suffers from depression, anxiety disorders, post-traumatic stress disorders, panic attacks, epilepsy, or other psychiatric diseases.
External factors that can cause noticeable changes in HRV include exposure to noise, induced pain, and climate. Genetic factors, gender, age, and circadian rhythm can all impact heart rate variability. For instance, if you aren't getting adequate sleep, you can throw off your circadian rhythm, affecting your autonomic nervous system and impacting your HRV values. Lifestyle factors like exercise, diet, alcohol consumption, tobacco use, physical activity, and stress can all greatly affect HRV values as well.
What Should My HRV Look Like?
Now that we know the average HRV, you may wonder what your HRV values should look like. While it's good to know the averages for your age group to have a comparison, it can also vary so much due to the above-mentioned factors that it's almost unfair to compare HRV. The best course of action is to measure your HRV to get a baseline and see what steps you can take to improve it. Measuring against your average score provides more insight into your general health than comparing your score to your age group. A low HRV value can indicate that the sympathetic dominant branch of the autonomic nervous system is in control, meaning the body is under a large amount of stress and not handling it as well as it could. A higher HRV can indicate better health, and if your number is lower than you'd like, there are many things you can do to help improve the number.
Working on getting the body out of fight-or-flight mode is a good first step to improve your HRV. Practicing mindfulness, yoga, and meditation can help get the body into the parasympathetic or rest-and-digest mode. The belief is that the heart rate variability trends are what matters most, so some low readings may not really be a cause for great concern. When you change your diet, get some decent exercise, good quality sleep, and work on improving your overall health, you may notice an improvement in your HRV values without having to do much more.