Heart Rate Variability Explained

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How healthy are you really?

Heart Rate Variability

What is health?

It's a frustratingly abstract concept when you think about it - isn't it? 

A health practice that may suit my body may well be, a completely unhealthy or at least redundant practice for you. What determines the 'health benefits' of any given activity (be it food, fitness or meditation) is completely down to your genetic makeup, your psychology and your lifestyle - it is therefore impossible to figure out a one size fits all approach to health and wellness. 

We need to get better acquainted with what is healthy for US as individuals so that we can really know if what we are dedicating our time to, is really working, or just making matters worse. 

So how can we figure that out?

We need to test and measure the messages our body gives us in response to our choices and one really great way to do that is to check your HRV, Heart Rate Variability.

What is Heart Rate Variability?

Although the heart may beat at 60 beats per minute, a healthy heart will have irregularities in the timing of those beats. So rather than your heart beating once every second for 60 seconds, there will be variations to the beats per second; typically on an inhale the beats will speed up and on an exhale they will slow down. You can test this on yourself now using the finger pulse check. 

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It's not to be confused with the heart rate which focuses on the average beats per minute. 

Heart rate variability measures the specific changes in time (or variability) between successive heartbeats. The time between those beats is measured in milliseconds and is called an R-R interval or inter-beat interval (IBI).

Having a low HRV (or low variability between the heart beats) indicates that the body is under stress from other internal or external stressors. Higher HRV in most cases means that the body has a keen ability to tolerate stress or quickly recovers from stressful situations.

Ok cool, but why is that important?

Heart Rate Variability gives us a bit of insight into the state of our Autonomic Nervous system - as it's the ANS that controls heart rate.

The Autonomic Nervous System is critical because in addition to heart rate - it also controls other essential bodily functions, like digestion, urination, breathing, pupillary response and even sexual arousal.

Heart Rate Variability measurement is, therefore, a window into the health of your ANS and how well/effectively it's potentially functioning. 

To comprehend its value, we do need to dive a little deeper into the ANS. The more you understand about your nervous system, the more control you'll have over taking care of your body.

The Autonomic Nervous System (The CEO/President)
The ANS has two main branches:

Parasympathetic Nervous System (think: rest and digest - VP of Chill)

Sympathetic Nervous System (think: fight or flight mode - the VP of Panic and Performance)

Everything around us is information to our bodies; be it our food, our exercise selection, the air we breathe, the bloggers we follow, and it all affects the way our Nervous System responds.

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Once the ANS receives information about the external environment and the body, it responds by stimulating or inhibiting body processes, either via the sympathetic or parasympathetic system.

Now, when stress levels are HIGH, we are usually overstimulating our Sympathetic nervous system, and this can wreak havoc on the processes that are related to the PNS (some of those critical processes being, Rest, recovery, sleep, digestion and even sex and fertility). 

The problem is that so many of us are so goddam stressed all the time that we've become accustomed to what those stress levels feel like. 

I've had plenty of clients in the past who have come to me, swearing black and blue that they are not stressed. However they have secret addictions to social media, shopping, drinking or taking drugs, their hair is falling out, their nails are breaking, they do 5 barry's Bootcamp classes a week and if they even get to a yoga class, they will no doubt leave before savasana (the relaxing/sleepy part at the end of the yoga class - I know, the best bit). 

In short, they are completely desensitised to what it feels like to be in that stressed out, sympathetic mode. However, when I spend a few weeks with them, having them check their HRV, they realise that while on the outside, they look and act as cool as Rosa Parks on the inside their ANS is more like that picture of Kim Kardashian crying. 

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Should those people be doing HIIT and eating in a stress-inducing calorie deficit? Hell No! Not until they bring down those stress levels and balance out the stimulation of their Parasympathetic and Sympathetic Nervous Systems.

Heart Rate Variability testing can help to give you a measurable marker for your health. Rather than just relying on the old 'ab-check' in the mirror every morning or getting on the sad scales; HRV testing can help to determine what might be the best method of training for you that day.

Heart Rate Variability testing can help to give you a measurable marker for your health. Rather than just relying on the old 'ab-check' in the mirror every morning or getting on the sad scales; HRV testing can help to determine what might be the best method of training for you that day.

How to Improve your HRV?

  • Meditation
  • Steady, Slow Breathing Exercises (particularly those that emphasise the exhalation, the parasympathetic aspect of your breath).
  • Walking in Nature
  • Listening to calming music

If you're in a sympathetic state; rather than hitting up that 4th HIIT session of the week - you might do one of my relaxing yoga videos instead.

If you're in a parasympathetic state; by all means hit some PB's (personal Bests) in that Crossfit class you love to attend.

Remember; the ANS is the big boss - if he is under too much stress, he will become that nightmare boss that we've all had to work with at some point in our lives. You know the grumpy, moody, incapable and unproductive one? You won't get the results you're after if he/she's involved.

This is great and all but how can I test my HRV?

Luckily for us, it can be measured by affordable consumer-grade heart rate monitors. It takes only 2 minutes in the morning (first thing is best).

I use the Elite HRV app along with the Polar H10 Heart Rate monitor (I've found it to be the most reliable even if it's more pricey than other options).

The Elite app stores all the data and like all collected data, the more you have, the stronger the evidence. So it does take a few weeks of daily data collection (HRV readings) to give you an accurate measure.

Before you ask; no I don't think that the apple watch or other straps are as reliable as this and neither is the light on the back of the phone (which can be used to take your pulse, not always accurately). However, if you're not able to get your hands on one of the H10 Polar Strap, then of course - start with whatever you have. 

Please also remember that HRV readings shouldn't be in place of regular visits to your doctor (particularly if you have health concerns).

If you want to learn more but do better through videos check out these youtube videos to learn more:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1TpGjRyMIDg  - Heart Rate Variability and the Science of Letting Go.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q06YIWCR2Js - Dr. Alan Watkins - Being Brilliant Every Single Day (part 1)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q_fFattg8N0 - Dr. Alan Watkins - Being Brilliant Every Single Day (part 2)