When you think of a healthy heart and its beat, you might envision something operating and sounding much like a metronome – an even pace and steady beat. This isn’t quite the case for a healthy heart. A healthy heart experiences variation in the time between beats. These variations in the beat of your heart - happening within fractions of a millisecond - can be measured and translated into useful data that can then be applied to help improve your overall health and well being. In fact, higher HRV (heart rate variability) has not only been reported as helping to improve an individual’s well being and quality of life but has also been reported as being associated with helping to reduce morbidity and mortality.
The job of your heart is similar to that of your vehicle’s engine. Your car’s engine is what enables the vehicle to go and to move, very similar to how your heart must beat and pump to supply oxygen rich blood throughout your body allowing it to get up and move. And just like your vehicle’s electrical network operates to generate, monitor, and control certain functions of your car’s operation, your heart, and its beats/variations are also controlled by a part of the nervous system known as the autonomic nervous system.
The Role of The Autonomic Nervous System in HRV
Your body’s autonomic nervous system (ANS) is always active and plays a very important role as it controls the unconscious processes that your body requires to survive. These processes include things like breathing and your heart beating, as well as other processes that you don’t consciously make a decision to do but your brain continues to manage.
The autonomic nervous system is very important to the heart as it helps to regulate heart rate, as well as blood pressure. This is done by your body’s autonomic nervous system to coordinate and control how fast your heart is beating which also determines how hard it is pumping. The autonomic nervous system also monitors and controls the width of your blood vessels, as well as contracting your heart’s ventricles and atriums.
How HRV is Measured
An electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG) is used to provide the most accurate measurements of the beating of your heart and the fluctuations between the timing of each. An electrocardiogram uses electrodes that are placed on your chest, arms, and legs to measure the electrical signals sent to your heart, causing it to beat. These electrical signals are then used to provide a graph of your heartbeat which doctors can use to determine your heart’s health and assist in diagnosing or preventing cardiovascular diseases such as heart attack, stroke, and other life threatening disorders.
Additionally, your HRV numbers can also add insight into other areas of your overall well being including your nutrition, stress levels, and mental health. HRV can help monitor you for signs of illness, and your quality of sleep, as well as alert you to any exercise issues that you may be unaware of such as overtraining. Monitoring your HRV is also beneficial for better understanding how you respond to stress, as well as learning more about what stresses you and your reaction to your emotions and the environment around you. HRV measurement can also be used to motivate you towards making those necessary lifestyle changes that would be beneficial for your well being and overall health.
Factors That Influence HRV in Older Adults
Stress, a lack of exercise, poor diet, alcohol, smoking, and other lifestyle factors can have damaging and sometimes dangerous effects on your body, your heart, and your HRV. Moreover, medical conditions such as anxiety, depression, diabetes, high blood pressure, and others can also directly influence and affect your health.
If you are someone who suffers from a certain disease or chronic health condition, you may also suffer from a lower HRV. Some of the diseases found to have a lowering effect on HRV include diseases of the heart and lungs, as well as renal diseases. Aside from physically ailing diseases such as those that attack the body, diseases that lay waste to the mind were also considered and found to be damaging to HRV. Psychiatric diseases such as anxiety and stress disorders, panic attacks, depression, PTSD, and others can have a direct effect on an individual’s HRV.
Strategies For Improving HRV in Older Adults
Getting older is unavoidable. Our bodies will age whether we want them to or not. There are, however, some key ways that your HRV can improve as you age. One of the most effective ways that you can ensure your HRV remains strong is through regular strength training and aerobic exercise. Exercise does not have to be strenuous or drawn out, it can be something as simple as walking for twenty minutes. The most important thing to remember is to stay active. However, as important as it is to exercise, it is equally important to take care not to overtrain or over exert yourself while exercising. Moreover, it is also vital that you allow your body time to recuperate, as well. Rest and recovery are just as key to healthy HRV as being physically active.
Restful and restorative sleep is one of the most important factors in improving HRV and overall well being. But getting a good night's sleep can be quite another challenge when faced with factors such as stress, busy schedules, and health issues that can make falling asleep or staying asleep a challenge all on its own. A few ways to ensure that you receive adequate and restful sleep can start with a few small changes in your bedtime routine such as creating and sticking to a healthy sleep schedule, avoiding screens and other distractions that can make it difficult to fall asleep, as well as a balanced diet and avoiding eating too close to your bedtime.
A balanced diet is also beneficial for your HRV. Remember when you were younger and your mother always made you eat your vegetables? Well, mom might have unknowingly been positively contributing to your heart’s health. Research shows that leafy green vegetables are rich in vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants; vitamin K, in particular, helps with lowering your risk of vascular damage. Leafy green vegetables are also rich in dietary nitrates which have been shown to decrease arterial stiffness, improve cell function in blood vessels, and reduce blood pressure.
How To Measure and Track HRV at Home
With technology being what it is today, it is no surprise that we now can monitor and track important and beneficial health data on our phones via apps. Health apps can be used to organize and easily access important health information. With these apps, users can monitor their activity, gauge their levels and hours of sleep, and even manage medications.
In addition to phones, many individuals also utilize wearable devices such as smart watches that allow them to track their general health. These watches can track items such as your steps per day, heart rate, calorie tracking and calorie burning, and much more. Some watches can even measure your blood oxygen levels. This can be highly useful since low blood oxygen may be an indicator of early signs pointing to circulatory, heart, and lung function issues.
Other more technical tools used for the measurement of your HRV would include chest strap heart monitors or an electrocardiogram. Aside from an electrocardiogram, chest strap heart monitors are the most accurate readers for HRV. The name is quite revealing of how the device operates and is worn as it is simply a long strip of elastic that is wrapped around the circumference of the chest to analyze and track your heart's beats per minute.
Your Heart Health Matters
Age can and does affect HRV, but there is so much more that can be done to improve your heart and its health no matter if you are older or if you are still young and feeling invincible. Time catches up to us all so by focusing your attention on healthier foods and lifestyles, you will be actively contributing to the health and rhythm of your own heart’s beat, as well as the overall quality and longevity of your life.