Heart rate variability is a way to measure the variance in time between your heartbeats, and this can be a great way to understand your body’s resilience to stress. You may be familiar with your heart rate and how it changes due to what your body is going through, but you may not have heard of heart rate variability.
Many years ago, the only way to measure heart rate variability was to visit a doctor. Recent advancements have made it so that people can easily track their heart rate variability on their own using special devices. Some people choose to use their smartphones and download apps that track their heart rate variability; others purchase wearable devices that allow them to measure and track their heart rate variability over time. Why is heart rate variability so significant, and how can you track it?
What is HRV?
This may come to you as a surprise, but your heart doesn’t beat exactly rhythmically but instead varies in time between heartbeats. Heart rate variability is the measurement of the variance in time between heartbeats, also referred to as the RR intervals of your cardiovascular system. While you may think that having heart beats in even syncopation is healthy, it’s actually preferred to have more minor fluctuations between the heartbeats. These intervals between the heartbeats are measured in milliseconds, and while it may not sound like it’s that important, the time between these fluctuations dramatically impacts your overall health. A higher heart rate variability can indicate that the body is strong and can handle stress. A lower score can mean the body needs help managing stress and may indicate present or future disease or health complications.
Heart Rate Variability and the Autonomic Nervous System
Your heart rate and heart rate variability are controlled by the autonomic nervous system, which has two main parts: the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. The parasympathetic system generally happens in the background, and it happens automatically without you having to think about it. Digestion, respiration, rest, heart beating, and the other bodily functions necessary for life are part of the parasympathetic system, and they occur without you having to think about it. The sympathetic system gets activated when the body feels a threat: the body’s fight or flight response to any stress, whether or not there is an actual or perceived threat.
When the nervous system branches are operating together synergistically, your heart rate variability is higher. Still, when one branch is activated more than the other, you generally have a lower heart rate variability. Having a high frequency of variation of your heart rate leads to a high heart rate variability and shows a higher state of well-being and overall health. In contrast, a lower frequency of variation and heart rate variability score indicates that you may need to address your body’s response to stress to lower risk factors for disease.
Why Track HRV?
People who are healthy and fit usually have a higher heart rate variability, as eating well and exercising lowers the risk for diseases. Heart disease, hypertension, high blood pressure, and diabetes mellitus are less likely to occur in people with a healthy heart rate variability score. Also, exercising regularly can help improve your autonomic nervous system health by letting your sympathetic nervous system respond to stress more appropriately when needed. Since it helps to keep your baroreflex (the system responsible for keeping your blood pressure at an ideal level) functioning properly, if you have high blood pressure, your blood pressure may be lowered. Here are three excellent reasons to track your heart rate variability:
- Illness and disease prevention. Discover that you have a lower heart rate variability score. You may be at an increased risk for cardiovascular disease and can take steps to prevent potential disease or illness. Preventing ventricular tachycardia, congestive heart failure, myocardial infarction, and other diseases may be easier if you learn your heart rate variability isn’t optimal.
- Increased fitness. Heart rate variability is critical to understanding your overall physical fitness. If you have a resting heart rate with a high variability frequency, your body is in a great spot for overall health, exercise, and eating well. If you have a lower variability frequency, you can take this as a sign that you must improve your fitness and diet.
- Tweak your workouts. If you are healthy but find out you have a lower heart rate variability, especially after working out, it can indicate that you may be overtraining. This can signal that your body needs a break and ease up the exercise because your body’s sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) is activated.
Methods For Tracking HRV
Measuring and tracking your heart rate variability doesn’t have to be complicated. There are different ways to measure and track your score, and here are some of the most common:
- Have an electrocardiogram (ECG) test performed. A cardiologist in their office usually performs these tests, and they use electrophysiology to discover what your heart rate variability is. This test studies your body’s electrical properties of tissues and cells. This highly accurate test can provide you with a lot of peace of mind about your heart and body’s health and suggest how to improve it.
- Use a personal chest strap monitor. You can purchase your own wearable heart rate monitor to save you from going to the doctor. It’s always a good idea to consult professionals if you see something that concerns you, even though it could be nothing serious. For example, having an irregular rhythm (respiratory sinus arrhythmia) can be caused by your parasympathetic vagal tone (related to the vagus nerve), and how you breathe can impact your heart’s beating rhythm but doesn’t indicate poor health at all.
- Use an app or wearable device. Today’s technology allows us access to so much data at our fingertips, and there are apps you can download that will enable you to use your smartphone to measure your heart rate variability. Some smartwatches and rings track multiple data points, including heart rate variability, allowing you to measure and track your heart health regularly.
Best Practices for Tracking HRV
Depending on which method you decide to use to measure and track your heart rate variability, there are different best practices for measuring and monitoring your score. You want consistency with how and when you take measurements for a more accurate score. For instance, you may decide that measuring your heart rate variability in the morning when you wake up and before you get out of bed or check your phone may work best for you.
Others may decide to track their heart rate variability while exercising to see how their body is responding to the physical stress it’s being put through. Most people think of mental stress when they hear the word stress, but it can refer to physical, mental, or physiological stress that the body is going through.
Tips for Improving HRV
When you work on improving your heart rate variability, you are also working on improving your health overall. Below are some tips to help improve your heart rate variability:
- If you have a health concern, work closely with a doctor. Going to a cardiologist can be an excellent way to get an accurate heart rate variability score and accurate interpretation of the data.
- Reduce your stress level. Since stress is one of the main things that can cause a lower frequency heart rate variability, reducing stress can help to improve your score. In addition to exercising and eating well, mindfulness and good sleep are essential in regulating stress levels. When your body maintains a good circadian rhythm for sleep, it can positively impact your body so much. Practicing meditation stimulates and relaxes the vagus nerve through deep breathing and calms the brain, which can help keep stress at bay.
- Eliminate unhealthy food and alcohol. Since both add stress to the body’s organs because they have to work harder to eliminate them, you may notice a higher heart rate variability if you start eating better and stop drinking.
- Increase your exercise. Exercising regularly helps keep the body well, and it’s not a shock that it also helps to improve your heart rate variability. Regular exercise can help keep your body healthy and also improve your autonomic nervous system’s health. Exercising regularly also releases endorphins, which improve your brain health as well.
Track Your HRV
Now that you know all the benefits of measuring heart rate variability, start tracking your measurements today. Buying a wearable device to measure and track is the easiest and most convenient option, so choosing a device you like is the biggest hurdle when starting to track your heart rate variability. Whether you work with a doctor or track on your own, it’s a good idea to start working on improving your health as soon as possible. You’ll be glad you did!