What is a good heart rate variability, and why should you care about your HRV?
Generally, a high HRV is healthy, as it measures your body’s ability to adapt to its environment.
Monitoring your HRV gives an earlier warning of overtraining or stress overload. Knowing your HRV allows you to plan stressful activities when your body is ready.
The recent availability of HRV apps and monitors has made them popular among athletes who use them to plan their training.
But these products make HRV seem overly simple. You must follow the best practices in measuring and interpreting HRV to use it to your advantage.
Please keep reading to learn how to measure and track your HRV accurately and improve it naturally.
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 correctly, it can give valuable insights into how well your body handles stress.
HRV is measured (1) with an electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG) test that records the electrical activity of your heart.
Your HRV can be considered your heart’s ability to adapt to different situations. Depending on your body’s current needs, your heart needs to speed up or slow down.
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 and parasympathetic systems.
Your sympathetic (fight or flight) is stimulated when you need to be active and alert. 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 Versus Resting Heart Rate
- Resting heart rate (RHR) is how many times your heart beats in one minute while resting.
- RHR measures the influence of both the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.
- HRV is a direct measure of the parasympathetic branch of the nervous system.
- HRV provides a much earlier warning for over-training or stress-related damage. If you know your HRV, you can better plan or avoid stressful activities.
- HRV is a better indicator of your total load, the sum of your mental, physical, and chemical stresses at any 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, your stress is low if your HRV is trending up, 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.
When and How to Measure HRV
- HRV should be measured while you’re 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 other times.
- 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 represent your awakened state accurately, and you may alter your baseline.
What Do HRV Variations Mean?
HRV variations signify 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’re not training, you’re physically, chemically, or emotionally stressed.
Having a low HRV means that your body is at or near homeostasis. If your daily readings are at or near your baseline levels, your body isn’t getting enough stress or stimulus to adapt.
Experiment with exercises to learn what lowers your HRV and what activities help raise your HRV. If the variation is high from absent day-to-day training, you’re either stressed (your total load is high) or do not measure 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 complete view of your health.
Is A High HRV Always Good?
Generally, having a high HRV is better, but not always. After intense training, the body becomes less sensitive to adrenaline. 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 extremely low and high HRV.
How HRV Helps You Handle Stress
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. High HRV is associated with exceptional health, resiliency, and longevity.
HRV is a good predictor of your body’s ability to recover from injuries or illness.
In one study, 90% (3) of those who suffered a heart attack and had a high heart rate variability were alive four years later. Conversely, only half of those who suffered a heart attack and had a low heart rate variability were alive in the same period.
High heart rate variability is linked to lower disease rates and longevity. What foods can you eat to improve your HRV naturally?
What Are the Best Foods For 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 half a serving of greens daily to improve HRV significantly.
What else can we do to increase HRV?
What’s The Best Exercise For HRV?
Aerobic exercise increases resting HRV by raising your active heart rate and lowering 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 doesn’t. HRV remains low, as 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.
To do a HIIT Workout:
- Exercise as fast as you can safely for 30 seconds
- Rest 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.
For the best results, don’t set an arbitrary time. Push to your max and then rest and recover until you’re ready to give 100% again. This could be 30 seconds or five minutes. It depends on you and your situation.
Learn more about how to get the most out of HIIT and its benefits in this short HIIT video from Thomas DeLauer.
What Variables Affect HRV?
HRV generally decreases with age, but health and fitness are more important. If you can stay fit and healthy, your HRV doesn’t have to 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 the following:
- high blood pressure
- high cholesterol
- being overweight
- mental stress
- sleep quality
- chronic pain.
Chronic stresses negatively affect the autonomic nervous system 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 environment.
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 on the chest or forehead.
Let’s look at different options.
The forehead offers one of 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 from your heart. But this method is less convenient as the connectors must be moist.
Ear HRV Monitors
The ear has a high blood flow density 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’re also less comfortable and make it harder to hear.
Wrist HRV Monitors
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.
The major drawback to wrist monitors is hand motion. But they’re convenient if you use them to track HRV when you’re not using your hand.
Find your baseline values, then test how lifestyle changes affect your health. Find 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. But smartphone apps like ithlete™ can measure HRV in under a minute.
How accurate are heart rate variability monitors?
One study found (6) that the ithlete™ (smartphone HRV monitor) matched ECG-derived measures in healthy adult subjects in controlled laboratory conditions. They concluded that getting accurate HRV data from smartphone apps like ithlete™ is promising.
HRV technology has widened the range of this vital health gauge for everyday use. HRV monitoring has become essential in everything from athletic training to stress reduction.
How to Increase Heart Rate Variability
- 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 significant influencers.
- Use your HRV to plan stressful activities to avoid overtraining or Overworking.
- Rest when your HRV is low.
Heart Rate Variability Key Takeaways
- 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, 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 notice your stressors. If you follow your HRV, you’ll be reminded to rest when needed. You can avoid pushing yourself unnecessarily 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 health biomarkers.
- Exercise, stress reduction, and eating greens can help protect your autonomic nervous system and heart and slow aging.
- HRV is only one metric; 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?
What is a good heart rate variability?
Generally, the higher HRV, the better. An HRV above 100 ms is considered good. But a good heart rate variability is relative to each person.
Should I worry if my HRV is low?
Low heart rate variability is a sign of poor overall health. But it’s particularly important if you have coronary artery disease.
What does low HRV mean?
Generally, a low HRV means your body is stressed. The stress could either be physical, emotional, or psychological.