What is Heart Rate Variability (HRV)?

If you’re into fitness and wellness, you may have already heard of heart rate variability (HRV). This measurement has been growing in popularity over the past few years, and with good reason. This measurement is simple, easy to get, non-invasive, and can provide helpful information about your health.

So, what exactly is it?

What HRV Measures

HRV is the measurement of the variation between each heartbeat. While heart rate measures the average times your heart beats per minute, heart rate variability measures the variation in time between those beats.

HRV is controlled by the autonomic nervous system (ANS). The ANS regulates many functions throughout the body, including blood pressure, breathing, and digestion. The ANS is broken up into two categories, the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. These are commonly referred to as the fight-or-flight and rest-and-digest responses, respectively.

As we go through our everyday lives, we’re exposed to various events that can trigger either our fight-or-flight response or our rest-and-digest response – like someone stopping short in traffic causing you to nearly crash or listening to soothing ambient nature sounds while you work at your desk.

But our lifestyle choices can also start to have an impact on how often our bodies are operating in either one of these states. Things like consistently not getting enough sleep, regularly eating processed foods, not exercising, or having a high-stress job can all lead to an overactive sympathetic nervous system. Living with an overactive sympathetic nervous system can contribute to health complications, like heart disease, weight gain, memory issues, and more.

Why is HRV Important?

Because HRV can help identify imbalances in the ANS, it’s a great way to gain insight into how our bodies are functioning. Then, once we have this information, we can start to change it.

Essentially, HRV is an indication of how resilient and flexible the ANS is. Generally speaking, when someone has a heightened sympathetic response, their HRV score would be low; when the parasympathetic system is engaged, HRV would be high.

While a lower HRV score doesn’t necessarily indicate poor health, low HRV scores have been associated with heart disease, depression, and anxiety disorders. Likewise with higher HRV scores. A high score doesn’t guarantee better health, but higher HRV scores have been linked to cardiovascular fitness and stress resiliency.

The good news is, we can all improve our HRV score.

How to Check and Improve HRV

At Neuropeak Pro, we provide our clients with a finger sensor connected to an app using Bluetooth to measure HRV. We also pair each person with their own performance coach to help guide their training.

Readings can take as little as two minutes to get a snapshot of where your HRV and ANS are at that moment. Simply open your app, place the sensor on your finger, sit relatively still, and breathe.

Then, your data is compared to a normative database for your age and sex. While comparing against these data can be helpful for giving yourself a general idea where you fall, it’s more important to compare your HRV against your past scores to track progress.

One way to help improve HRV over time is through breathing exercises. Many of us have developed poor breathing habits, which can actually take a toll on our health. Breathing quickly and shallowly, for example, is one way to engage our fight-or-flight response.

Many people have a resting breathing rate between 12 and 20 breaths per minute. Ideally, we should instead breathe deeply from our abdomen, called diaphragmatic breathing, at a rate of six to eight breaths per minute. This diaphragmatic breathing helps engage the parasympathetic response, which can help lead to a higher HRV over time.

Also keep in mind that some people’s scores may change greatly throughout training, while others may not. That’s why it’s important to develop a training plan with your performance coach and discuss your results throughout the program.

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Marcelo Campos, MD. Heart Rate Variability: A New Way to Track Well-Being. 24 Oct. 2019, www.health.harvard.edu/blog/heart-rate-variability-new-way-track-well-2017112212789.