Heart rate variability has been a buzzword for a while, and for good reason. Over the last few years, smartphones and smartwatches have exploded in popularity, and many people are more aware of their health because of these devices. Step counters and health apps help to inspire people to reach their health goals since it’s within arms reach (often quite literally!). Smartwatches also can track heart rate variability, which is a good indicator of your overall health and the health of your autonomic nervous system. With this information, you can make informed choices on how to proceed with your goals. Heart rate variability can even be an indicator of whether you’re at a higher risk for future health issues!
What Is HRV?
Heart rate variability is the measurement of fluctuations in time between heartbeats. Contrary to popular belief, the amount of time between each heartbeat is not consistent, and it’s actually preferable to have more time between heartbeats, as it shows your body is resilient and responds well to stress.
If your body is operating in the fight-or-flight mode, your heart rate may be higher in general, which doesn’t allow a lot of time between heartbeats and you’ll notice that your heart rate variability is lower. When your body is operating in the parasympathetic mode, your heart rate is generally lower, which allows more time between heartbeats and more time for variability.
How To Measure HRV
There are different ways to measure your heart rate variability. Chest straps, arm and wrist monitors, smart watches, and even your smartphone can help you discover your heart rate variability. When you take your readings, to get the most accurate results, you shouldn’t talk or move and make sure that your body stays in the same position for all readings. Your breathing and heart rate should be stable. It’s a good idea to take measurements at the same time every day to get accurate results. If you’re taking your measurement with a smartphone, it’s important to not move your finger from the flash.
The best way to measure your heart rate variability is the way that you’ll be consistent, so if you choose to use a smartwatch or smartphone then using it daily is the best way to get a baseline reading and understand the health of your body and nervous system. Your diet and nutrition are also linked to your heart rate variability, as different foods can cause inflammation in the body. The autonomic nervous system is equipped to help with digestion and inflammation, and when your body is in rest-and-digest (or parasympathetic mode) it is better able to help deal with any triggers.
HRV and The Autonomic Nervous System
Your body has an autonomic nervous system that is responsible for many actions including blood pressure, digestion, respiration, sexual arousal, and heart rate. These are all physiologic processes that you really don’t have to give much thought to since your body takes care of it all on its own. There are two branches of the autonomic nervous system: the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems. When functioning properly, the body should be able to go from one state to the other depending on what it is facing. For instance, if you’re in a situation where you’re being chased by a dog, your sympathetic nervous system will kick in and divert energy from digestion and respiration to allow your body the energy to be able to run from the threat. After the threat has passed, your body should go into parasympathetic mode and energy should be diverted back to the processes that are necessary to survive.
Some people get stuck in the sympathetic nervous system where their body is in a constant state of fight-or-flight, and they may notice different health effects as a result. While there isn’t a direct way to know if your body is functioning more in the parasympathetic or sympathetic nervous system, tracking your heart rate variability can be a good indicator of your overall nervous system health.
Why Is HRV Important?
When someone is in a normal, healthy situation, their heart rate variability should increase during relaxing activities like sleep or meditation. During this time, the parasympathetic nervous system should be dominating. When the body is under stress, sympathetic activity is activated, and the parasympathetic nervous system should be dominant to keep up with the demand for higher energy expenditure. As a result, heart rate variability is typically higher when the heart is beating slower and then lowers as the heart starts to beat faster.
A person’s heart rate variability level will vary naturally throughout the day as well as over a period of time based on their level of stress and physical activity. If a person is physically or mentally chronically stressed, the balance between the two autonomic nervous systems can become imbalanced and the body gets stuck in a sympathetically dominant state even when the person is at rest. This is very taxing on the body and can lead to physical and mental health problems.
Measuring heart rate variability is very important to understand which branch of the autonomic nervous system the person is basically operating out of. While genetic factors contribute significantly to a person’s overall heart rate variability level, there are many things that the individual can do to improve their HRV. Stress management, physical activity, and mindfulness can all help to improve HRV. Tracking HRV over time is a great idea to understand whether there have been improvements in the body’s autonomic nervous system, which impact overall health.
How To Utilize HRV
Once you start taking your heart rate variability measurements, you now have a baseline as to what levels are typical for your body. If your levels are low, you can take steps to improve your heart rate variability and overall health. Research is now showing that the state of your autonomic nervous system has huge impacts on your overall health, wellness, and happiness. There are so many things you can do to improve your heart rate variability and health. People that have low heart rate variability readings can also have high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and other health problems. By working to improve this score using diet, exercise, and stress-reducing techniques, they may also lower cholesterol and blood pressure, while increasing their health and happiness.
When is the Best Time to Measure HRV?
Providing repeatable and stable conditions that aren’t external factors are kept to a minimum is important when you’re taking measurements. Many measurements have originated from the medical world and they perform standard protocols first thing in the morning. Measuring heart rate variability is similar to other health measurements, and ideally the best time to take your HRV measurement should be right after you wake up and while you are still in bed. Before you start thinking about your day, reading your email, or doing anything else that may add anxiety or stress to your life is optimal as well. Here are some common misconceptions about heart rate variability:
Are Low Readings Bad?
Assuming all low readings are bad. Having a chronically low heart rate variability measure isn’t ideal; however, there are certain instances where having a low reading may be desirable. If you measure your HRV after a hard workout, you may notice that you’ve got a low reading. Most people will notice that their measurements will return to normal after a few days or weeks’ time. This signals that the body is undergoing a reasonable amount of stress and then bouncing back to where it needs to be.
Slightly Lower Reading
A slightly lower reading than your normal baseline on a day when you’re exerting a lot of physical activity may be favorable depending on the activity. Sympathetic (fight-or-flight) activity is necessary for competitions and other sporting events. Short events can benefit from a lower heart rate variability score.
Assuming that your high reading is always a good thing isn’t necessarily true. If you have one reading where the HRV is higher than your baseline or normal reading, it can signal that something is off in the body. When you have a mild sickness, your immune system is stimulated and works overtime. This can cause an increase in heart rate variability and is actually favorable for recovering from the illness but should not be viewed as your health is increasing.
Being continuously exposed to low-grade stressors can make your heart rate variability higher in the short term while your body tries to recover from them. If you’re getting a high HRV reading but experiencing very low energy, you may be having chronic low-grade stress that is robbing your body of resources. This is not a good long-term situation, and if the stress isn’t dealt with it can cause your health to decline.
Track Your Heart Rate Variability
Tracking your heart rate variability over time is a good idea for people of all ages to do. This can be a good indicator of the trajectory of your overall health. If your HRV is low, there are many things you can do to improve it, and taking those steps can greatly influence your quality of life. Whether you use a smartwatch, a specialty heart rate variability device, or your smartphone, keeping a record of your heart rate variability is a good thing to do.