Heart Health

Heart Rate Variability

heart rate variability

Monitoring your health has never been easier. There are a plethora of ways to track data related to your health, including your steps, hours of sleep, heart rate, and blood pressure to name a few. What you may not know is there is also a value you can use to measure your body’s resilience and behavioral flexibility.

These two traits are important when it comes to making changes to your health and wellness as well as sticking to your goals when times get tough or when you have an unexpected setback. The biometric you can use to measure these two values is known as your heart rate variability (HRV). 

What is Heart Rate Variability? 

Your heartbeat is controlled by your autonomic nervous system: a collection of nerves, muscles, and glands that regulate predominantly unconscious bodily functions, like your heart rate. Your pulse increases when the sympathetic nervous system is activated during a stressor (your fight or flight response) and reduces with the activation of your parasympathetic nervous system (your rest and digest response).

Throughout each day, your body is constantly responding to stressors, either preparing to react or to rest based on your perception of any danger they may pose to you. This constant push and pull between these two systems is what creates subtle variability between each heartbeat.   

In the past, one of the few ways to measure your HRV has been through an electrocardiogram (ECG), where your doctor attaches a bunch of electrodes to you. Fortunately, modern technology has simplified this process and there are now a variety of commercially available options for HRV monitoring outside a doctor’s office. It’s important to note that these methods are not as sensitive as an ECG, but they can provide you with useful information and a way to track how well you are doing day to day.


Why might you want to monitor your HRV? 

It is believed the effects of chronic stress can hyperactivate your sympathetic nervous system leading to physical, psychological, and behavioral abnormalities. Research is finding that people with a low HRV may have a less active parasympathetic nervous system (the counter to your sympathetic nervous system) and can put you more at risk for anxiety and depression. Some studies also show a connection to complications for people who have diabetes and an increase in the risk of death from cardiovascular disease.  

There are many behaviors that can influence your HRV, both in the short-term and in the long-term. The higher your HRV, the more resilient your body is when responding to these stressors, and the better able you will be to recover or manage medical conditions. 

Short-term reduction to HRV Long-term reduction to HRV 
> Stress 
> Poor sleep 
> Poor diet 
> Alcohol consumption 
> Illness 
> Acute overtraining Some medications 
> Chronic disease or inflammation 
> Chronic stressors or burnout 
> Chronic lack of sleep 
> Lack of fitness Chronic
> Overtraining
> Unhealthy home or work environment 

It is important to remember that biometrics like HRV should be used as a guide to how well you are doing with maintaining or moving towards a healthy lifestyle. It can be a great way to help you learn how your body responds to stress and track how well your nervous system is functioning. However, there can be inconsistencies between devices, which means that while the technology is getting better, you may want to be cautious about how strictly you use this variable to monitor your health journey. 

Some things to keep in mind if you do start tracking your HRV: 

  • Higher is not always better. Your body craves balance, so if you are constantly seeing high scores,  you may be pushing yourself too hard, especially when it comes to exercise. You may need to schedule in some rest time to recover and bring some variability to your HRV. 
  • Consistency is key. To really compare your HRV numbers day-to-day, it is best to measure it at the same time, using the same body position, and with natural breathing. A good plan would be to do this right after you wake up (before any caffeine, food or your daily stressors begin) and either lying down or sitting up. 

  • Don’t compare your numbers to others. Each body is different, so learn your baseline and then keep an eye on your personal trends. 

  • Trend trumps accuracy. Pick your device and stick with it. Between device measurements are likely to vary, which means you are more likely to see trends if you are using a single device to track your HRV. The accuracy of the device you use is less relevant in relation to these trends, so find one that you like and know you will use. 

What can you do to increase your HRV? 

No matter the source of your stressors, the key to increasing your resilience and ability to bounce back from them could be by increasing your HRV so that you have a more active parasympathetic nervous system.  There are many lifestyle behaviors you can begin to incorporate that have been shown to increase your HRV, including: 

  • Mindfulness practices 
  • Meditation 
  • Getting quality sleep  
  • Physical activity 

If you are already doing a few or most of these, good for you! If you are struggling with any of these areas, don’t worry. Find one that you feel comfortable working on and start making small changes today that will grow with you on your wellness journey.  

Not sure where to start or having trouble making these changes on your own? Working with a health coach can help provide the accountability, resources, and support you need to find the motivation to get started and stick with your new habits. If you would like to learn more about how a health coach can help you to meet your health and wellness goals, you can schedule an inquiry call today with our certified health coach, Erika Zink.

Erika Zink, NBC-HWC

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