Author: Dr. Gary Huber
Not "heart rate" but Heart Rate VARIABILITY is the key to understanding your level of stress and reclaiming control.
Health is more than simply the absence of disease. True health can be built, managed and massaged to
great heights. We are the architect and we decide in what direction it moves every day.
Heart Rate Variability offers a tangible, direct, hands on measurement of our health and will
reflect the daily decisions we make. A window to core of our physiology.
What is Heart Rate Variability (HRV)?
HRV is a unique way of directly measuring the activity and tone of our autonomic nervous system. The autonomic nervous system is the involuntary nervous system that includes the “sympathetic” (active go go go side) and the “parasympathetic” (chill out and relax side) of your central nervous system. The parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for slowing the heart rate, increasing intestinal activity and digestion, and relaxes the muscles as well as the mind. The balance between the Sympathetic (SP) and the parasympathetic (PSP), or lack of balance can be measured, tracked, and more importantly altered by our daily habits and decisions.
Your Heart is NOT a Swiss time piece
Sitting still in a chair with a heart rate of 60 beats per minute does not mean that you heart is beating once every second. In fact, it is our healthy desire that each beat is slightly less or slightly more than 1 second each. This is the actual variability between beats, and this is a sign of health. When we inhale, a healthy heart will speed up slightly and as he exhale it slows down slightly. Looking at the chart below we see subtle variation in time one beat to the next. This is the “variability”. A “stressed” nervous system has less variability and a healthy heart and nervous system has greater variability.
If you are stressed on a regular basis, you continually engage the sympathetic nervous system, and if this becomes a heavy recurrent pattern then we typically see a higher resting heart rate with less variability. If this persists then there is dramatic rise in risk for heart disease, Alzheimers, diabetes and even autoimmune disease like rheumatoid arthritis. To combat this trend we want to engage the parasympathetic nervous system and find balance. There are several ways to enhance parasympathetic engagement:
- Gentle Exercise.
- Intense exercise may actually put strain on this system which is fine to do as long as you monitor the effect and facilitate recovery
- Meditation and Stillness practices, are great tools for restoring balance in the nervous system
- Belly Breathing, also called diaphragmatic breathing, entails movement of the diaphragm such that your belly pushes out with each slow inhale. See the article “Belly Breathing - The Basics” for more detail here.
So How Do I Measure HRV?
Great question. Its simple. I recommend using a free APP called “Elite HRV” in conjunction with a Polar H7 chest strap that has a blue tooth connection. This is very easy to set up. You want to put the chest strap on for a 5 minute reading. This is actually a great time to meditate during the reading. The reading will show you if you are unbalanced toward the sympathetic side, the parasympathetic side or perfectly balanced. The Elite HRV app will show you many things not available through a “Whoop” wristband or “Aura” ring. You can measure your nervous system strength or power and the “RMSSD” which is the greatest predictor of health. To better understand these terms go view the 2 videos on Heart Rate Variability.
A good reading of heart rate variability is above 60 on average but whatever your initial reading is the goal is simply to see it improve over time and the APP tracks your averages and progress. The other reading to track is your RMSSD which is a calculation using the HRV. Again, the goal is to be above 45 or even over 60 if you exercise. The key is to watch for low RMSSD readings as this predicts inflammatory disease and poor nervous system balance.
If you engage in strenuous exercise which I strongly encourage as a tool for slowing the rate of aging, then you can view the impact on your HRV readings. Too much high intensity training without proper recovery will lead to a dip in HRV and RMSSD. This is what makes it a great tool for high end athletes. You can use this movement to determine your body’s readiness for more exercise. If you do interval training on Monday and see a low RMSSD on Tuesday then this is telling you to ease off the gas and allow your body to recover. Take a light day of exercise or an active recovery day and see if it doesn't rebound by Wednesday. If it does and the “Readiness” arrow is pointing to 8 or better and the HRV and RMSSD have returned to baseline then you are once again ready to take on a hard training load.
The ability to recover quickly is dependent upon your nutrition, sleep and meditation habits. If you are struggling then consider use of natural adaptogens such as Rhodiola to help reduce damaging effects from cortisol, the stress hormone.
The term “stress” is much more than a long day at work. Stress includes (and is certainly not limited to) the wear and tear we put our bodies through every minute of every day: medications, processed foods, rush hour, illness, injury, alcohol, plastics, fumes, cosmetics, and the list goes on and on. According to the American Institute of Stress (can you believe that is a real thing?) up to 90% of all health problems are related to stress. Too much stress can contribute to and agitate heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, depression, cancer, and sleep disorders.
A key component to understand about mental/emotional stress: it’s not the events or situations that do the harm; it’s how you respond to those events. When you intentionally shift to a positive emotion, heart rhythm immediately changes. This has tremendous ramifications for long-term health and affords us a valuable portal through which we can exert control over our base physiology. Tracking your HRV and RMSSD over time gives direct access to the pulse of your overall health. It keeps you in touch with how your cells are processing the experiences of your life. And can be a great way to demonstrate that YOU are in fact in control as you see the effects of good sleep, proper breathing, and meditation on the HRV.
So, if you are ready to truly direct your destiny and control the raging variables in your life then start with this simple and reliable tool. It can be a life saver.
See the 2 videos in our library on how to use and read the Elite HRV APP and Polar chest strap.