What is a good heart rate variability?
And why should you care about your HRV?
Generally, a high HRV is good for health, as it’s one measure of your body’s ability to handle stress.
Monitoring your HRV gives an earlier warning sign of overtraining or stress overload. Your HRV helps you know when your body can train harder and when it needs to rest.click to tweet
The recent availability of HRV apps and monitors has made it popular among athletes who use it to plan their training.
These products, however, make HRV seem overly simple. You need to follow the best practices in measuring and interpreting HRV to use it to your advantage.
Keep reading to learn how to measure and track your HRV accurately and improve it naturally.
Table of Contents
- What is Heart Rate Variability?
- HRV Verses resting heart rate
- When and how to measure HRV
- What do HRV variations mean?
- How HRV helps you handle stress
- Exercise and HRV
- What variables affect HRV?
- HRV monitors and products
- How long does it take to measure HRV?
What Is Heart Rate Variability?
Heart rate variability (HRV) is (1) a measure of the variation in the time between consecutive heartbeats called interbeat intervals. When used properly it can give valuable insights into how well your body is handling stress.
HRV is measured (1) with an electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG) test that records the electrical activity of your heart.
Your HRV can be thought of like your heart’s ability to adapt to different situations. Your heart needs to speed up or slow down depending on your body’s current needs.
The human body is designed to regulate heart rate and blood pressure in real-time to survive in its environment. Therefore, changes need to happen in an instant.
The autonomic nervous system manages this process through the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system.
When you need to be active and alert, your sympathetic(fight or flight) is stimulated. But when you need to rest, your parasympathetic (rest, digest, and repair) is activated.
See HRV in action and learn a simple exercise to improve your HRV in this short video.
HRV Verses Resting Heart Rate
- Resting heart rate (RHR), how many times your heart beats in one minute while you are at rest, is a measure of the influence from both the sympathetic branch and the parasympathetic branch of the nervous system.
- Conversely, HRV is a direct measure of the parasympathetic branch of the nervous system.
- Therefore, HRV provides a much earlier warning for over-training or stress-related damage.
- HRV is a better indicator of your total load, the sum of your mental, physical, and chemical stresses at any one time. If your HRV is trending down your total load is increasing.
- Decreasing HRV means your body is in a stressful state and you should choose more relaxing activities. Conversely, if your HRV is trending up your stress is low and you can train harder.
- For example, in one study of 29 participants, runners with the highest pre-race HRV had (2) the fastest times.
How to Measure Heart Rate Variability
- HRV should be measured while you are sitting or standing upright. Parasympathetic saturation, a phenomenon caused while lying down, makes trends in HRV harder to interpret.
- HRV is best taken in the morning because your cortisol awakening response will make the reading different at any other time.
- Therefore, if you can’t take the reading within an hour of your usual time then don’t take it that day. Taking your reading at the wrong time will not accurately represent your awakened state and you may alter your baseline.
What Do HRV Variations Mean?
HRV variations are a sign that your body is trying to return to its normal state (homeostasis).
High variation usually means that your body is adapting to stress. This can come from training or other stressors. If your variation is high and you are not training that usually means that you are under stress.
Having a low HRV means that your body is at or near homeostasis. If your daily readings are at or near your baseline levels that means that your body is not getting enough stress or stimulus to adapt.
Experiment with different exercises to learn what causes your HRV to lower and what activities help to raise your HRV. If the variation is high from day-to-day absent training it means that you’re either stressed (your total load is high) or you are not measuring consistently.
Record and compare your variations with how you feel. Do they match? If your HRV is low do you feel stressed? Use both methods to get a full view of your health.
Is A High HRV Always Better?
Generally, having a high HRV is better, but not always. After intense training, the body becomes less sensitive to adrenaline. Whereby both resting heart rate and heart rate are lowered during training, while often at the same time HRV is higher than normal.
Choose a fitness tracker that will alert you to both especially low or high HRV.
Learn more about HRV monitors.
How HRV Helps You Handle Stress
Having a high heart rate variability means that your body is efficient at changing your heart rate in response to your environment.
The better you can adapt to your environment, the better your chances of survival. Having a high HRV is associated with exceptional health, resiliency, and longevity.
HRV is a good predictor of your body’s ability to both deal with and recover from injuries or illness.
In one study, 90% (3) of those who suffer a heart attack and have a high heart rate variability were still alive 4 years later. Conversely, only half of those who suffer a heart attack and have a low heart rate variability were still alive in the same time period.
Having a high heart rate variability has been linked to lower disease rates and longevity. What foods can we eat to naturally improve our HRV?
Food and HRV
An article in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition revealed that greens are (4) the only type of food that can significantly improve heart rate variability. And you only need to eat a half serving of greens a day to significantly improve HRV.
What else can we do to increase HRV?
Exercise and HRV
Aerobic exercise increases resting HRV as exercise raises your active heart rate and lowers your resting heart rate. Thereby, exercise prompts your body to adapt to its needs.
Your body is efficient, it will give you what you need depending on what you do.
HRV lowers during exercise and significantly increases at rest. Similarly, HRV decreases during stressful situations. Except exercising has an endpoint, chronic stress does not. Thereby, HRV remains low and so does your body’s ability to handle stress.
High-Intensity Interval Training
High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) involves giving 100% effort in a quick, intense burst of exercise, followed by a brief resting period. HIIT increases your maximum heart rate thereby increasing your HRV.
HIIT is as simple as doing one exercise, like sprinting, as fast as you can safely for 30 seconds, then resting for 90 seconds. Be sure to warm up first and start with one rep.
Rest for several days in between HIIT sets. Build up slowly to a workout of several reps that only takes about 15 minutes. And experiment with new exercises.
For the best results, don’t set an arbitrary time. Push to your max and then rest and recover until you are ready to give 100% again. This could be 30 seconds or five minutes, it all depends on you and your situation.
Learn more about how to get the most out of HIIT and its benefits in this short video.
What Variables Affect HRV?
HRV generally decreases with age but health and fitness are more important. Thereby, if you can stay fit and healthy your HRV will not necessarily decline with age.
Sympathetic (fight or flight) branch activities or stimulations that require your body to be alert and active, can lower your HRV. Chronic stresses mimic a constant sympathetic need and keep HRV low.
These stresses include infection, cancer, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, being overweight, smoking, mental stress, sleep quality, and chronic pain.
Chronic stresses negatively affect the autonomic nervous system which is responsible for unconscious functions such as breathing and blood circulation.
Genetics also influence HRV but your genetic expression is more important and something you can control. You can turn on and off gene expression by changing your habits and your environment.
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HRV Monitors and Products
The easiest way to track your HRV is with a wearable fitness monitor. The best place to monitor your HRV (5) appears to be on the chest or forehead.
Let’s look at different options. And I will update you with more recommendations.
The forehead offers perhaps the best readings as it has high blood profusion and thinner skin. Additionally, the forehead has less motion compared to other areas.
Chest HRV Monitors
Chest monitors have been the gold standard for testing HRV as they get readings right from your heart. Nevertheless, this method is less convenient as the connectors must be moist.
Ear HRV Monitors
The ear has a high density of blood flow and a bank of arterioles. And at the right angle, a sensor can get a good reading. But ear monitors are difficult because people’s anatomies vary and the monitor needs to fit well. They are also less comfortable and make it harder to hear.
The major drawback to wrist monitors is the motion of the hand. But they are convenient if you use them to track HRV when you are not using your hand.
The best aspect of wrist monitors is the user interface, especially if it tracks other health indicators.
Watches and fitness monitors are a great way to track your health over time.
Find your baseline values, then test how a change you make affects your health. Find out what works best for you. What activities relax you? What stresses you?
How Long Does it Take to Measure HRV?
Traditionally, HRV is measured in specialized laboratories and requires (6) at least 5-minute recordings and a qualified technician for interpretation.
More recently, smartphone apps like ithlete™ can measure HRV in just under a minute. How accurate are heart rate variability monitors?
One study found (6) that in controlled laboratory conditions that the ithlete™ (smartphone HRV monitor) matched ECG derived measures in healthy adult subjects. They concluded that getting accurate HRV data from smartphone apps like ithlete™ is promising.
Consequently, the advent of HRV technology has widened the range of this important health gauge to everyday use. HRV monitoring has become an important tool in everything from athletic training and stress reduction.
Action Plan: How to Improve HRV
- Eat plenty of greens.
- Avoid excess stress.
- Train when your HRV is high and you feel ready.
- Consistently track your HRV and take note of its major influencers.
- Use your HRV to plan stressful activities to avoid overtraining or Overworking.
- Rest when your HRV is low.
- HRV is a measure of your body’s total stress load. Generally, a high HRV means that you can train or work harder. And a low HRV means that your body needs time to rest and recover.
- Consistently monitoring your HRV helps you plan your training, thereby reducing stress overload and downtime from illness or injury.
- You can use your daily HRV readings to see what activities affect your stress load, such as how much sleep you need and what helps you recover faster.
- HRV helps you stop and take notice of your stressors. If you follow your HRV you will be reminded to take a rest when you need it most. You can avoid unnecessarily pushing yourself beyond your limits.
- Maintaining a high HRV may be one of the keys to longevity and growing younger. And the things that can improve HRV can also improve your other biomarkers of health.
- Exercise, stress reduction, and eating greens can help protect your autonomic nervous system, your heart, and slow down aging.
- HRV is only one metric and therefore it does not give a complete picture of your health. Track and compare your HRV with your subjective indicators. Do your readings match how you feel?
What are your thoughts on HRV? Could tracking your HRV help you?
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