What is it and why does it matter?
If you own an Apple watch you might have noticed that it can track your HRV, amongst many, many other readings. You may make a guess or indeed know that this refers to your ‘Heart Rate Variability’ but you might not understand what this really means, why it’s important and what you can do to help to improve it. After all, what’s the point of taking a reading if it doesn’t inform your behaviour?
What is HRV?
Whilst your heart rate (‘HR’) is the number of times your heart beats in a minute, your HRV is the variation in the time interval between consecutive heartbeats. It is measure in milliseconds and can be a useful marker to assess the body’s resilience to stress. A healthy individual who has good stress management and achieves adequate physical rest tends to have lower HR with greater variability between the beats, i.e high HRV. Conversely, an individual that is highly stressed and either over or under trained tends to have higher HR with lower HRV.
Why does HRV matter?
HRV can be influenced by many factors such as diet, sleep, exercise and recovery, chronic health conditions, age and gender. It is also largely dependent upon the action of the two branches of the autonomic nervous system. The Sympathetic (‘fight or flight’) branch is responsible for the body’s stress response which, amongst other things includes the signal to increase HR & decrease HRV. In contrast, activation of the Parasympathetic (‘rest and digest’) branch helps the body to relax and repair and includes the signal to reduce HR and increase HRV. So measuring the variability between the beats (HRV) can therefore help us understand the interaction between the sympathetic and parasympathetic arms of the nervous system.
It is possible to get some idea of this interaction by simply taking a few deep, slow inhales and exhales, whilst noticing the pulse on your wrist. You should notice the phenomenon known as ‘respiratory sinus arrhythmia’ as the HR slows on the exhale but increases on the inhale.
Because so many factors influence your HRV, it can be very specific to the individual and not easily compared with other people’s readings. But it can be beneficial to monitor your own patterns over time and with awareness of the your own specific circumstances.
Generally speaking, high HRV can be a sign of good fitness, heart function and stress resilience. HRV tends to drop as you age and men tend to have higher HRV than women. It also varies naturally throughout and from day to day, depending upon levels of activity and stress (physical and mental).
Overall, it appears that increasing HRV can be associated with reduced morbidity and mortality, better quality of life and psychological well-being.
What Can I Do to Improve HRV?
So now we understand what HRV is and what it represents, we can now look at how nutrition, fitness, stress management and recovery skills can positively influence this important reading.
- Exercise appropriately: The body perceives both excess or under exercise as stressors. Also getting sufficient recovery in between hard training sessions is essential to allow your body to repair, rebuild and get stronger. Also, increasing your cardiovascular fitness can help to improve the function of your mitochondria (the power houses of your cells) which improves HRV.
- Good nutrition: Research indicates that various aspects of diet have been shown to benefit HRV. Examples of this positive effect include the Mediterranean Diet, omega 3 fatty acids, B vitamins, probiotics and polyphenols, so it makes sense to aim for a whole food rainbow diet, with low levels of highly processed foods and sugars, together with adequate high quality protein and fats.
Exercise appropriately: The body perceives both excess or under exercise as stressors. Also getting sufficient recovery in between hard training sessions is essential to allow your body to repair, rebuild and get stronger. Also, increasing your cardiovascular fitness can help to improve the function of your mitochondria (the power houses of your cells) which improves HRV.
- Hydrate: Recent studies have indicated that dehydration leads to reduced HRV, significant effects on physical & mental performance and increased levels of anxiety.
- Sleep: Good sleep hygiene and regular sleep routines can make big improvements to quality of sleep. As studies indicate that poor sleep appears to reduce daytime HRV, it makes sense to make sleep a priority for health.
- Morning exposure to natural light can help to regulate the sleep/wake cycle, which in turn can boost HRV by helping to sustain your body’s natural circadian rhythm.
- Breathwork: Studies have shown how slow controlled breathing techniques can help to reduce stress, activate the ‘rest and digest’ parasympathetic branch of the nervous system and increase HRV.
- Other stress management techniques: Techniques such as mindfulness and meditation work in a similar way to breathwork by reducing stress and increasing HRV.
- Reduce alcohol intake: Studies have shown that consumption of 2 glasses of wine (or alcohol equivalent) can lead to increased heart rate, reduced HRV and activation of the sympathetic ‘fight or flight’ response of the nervous system. Over time, this may lead to increased risk of cardiovascular events.
Yoga and pilates are both mindful movement and also great ways to improve fitness, strength and reduce stress. If you’re undecided about which might suit you best, why not click here to read about the benefits of yoga and pilates : So What Really Is the Difference Between Yoga and Pilates?
When you’ve decided which you’d like to try first, then click here to book Classes
Whichever you decide, including either of these in your daily life is sure to support your long term health and wellbeing.