Most people are generally familiar with the newly popular acronym HRV, which stands for Heart Rate Variability. This term is often used casually when talking about health and is now included in the data received from smartwatches or wearable fitness trackers. I find that most people aren’t exactly sure what this health measurement actually means and are even more surprised to learn that it can be used as a clear indicator of someone's current health. Beyond understanding what it is and its importance, the biggest question may be how one can improve this critical piece of health data?
HRV is simply the time calculated in milliseconds between individual heartbeats. The time begins when one heartbeat ends and the next begins and has very little to do with resting or peak heart rates; although those two things may coincide with an HRV score. HRV is influenced by the sympathetic (fight or flight) and parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest) which remain in constant battle with one another throughout the day. Think of it like a tug-of-war. On one end is the sympathetic nervous system, which is activated during times of stress (good or bad), and on the other end of the rope is the parasympathetic nervous system, which is activated during times of rest.
Breaking it down simply.
Picture the sympathetic side being pulled by Eddie Hall, 2017’s world strongest man, and the parasympathetic side is loaded with 2018’s Worlds Strongest Man, ‘The Mountain’, and the US Women's Weightlifting Team. We have an intense battle pulling your heart rate in two different directions with a touch more power to the parasympathetic side, giving you a high heart rate variability score. Where we get in trouble is when we replace The Mountain and some of the strongest women in the world with….4’10’’ actor, Danny Devito.
Danny Devito represents poor sleep, the Standard American Diet, little to no stress management, and a sedentary lifestyle. Eddie represents a stressful job, toxic relationship, high-intensity training for 3 hours a day 7 days per week, capped off with an indulgence for alcohol. Can you picture poor Dany Devito getting dragged on his stomach desperately hanging on to the rope for dear life? The sympathetic nervous system wins, all day, every day and when this happens too often, the time between heartbeats decreases significantly, resulting in lower heart rate variability.
The American dream/hustle and bustle of life has resulted in people who live stressful lives with limited stress management skills and a lifestyle that doesn’t encourage a parasympathetic state. Working too much, sleeping too little, consuming processed foods and alcohol, and bottling up emotions wreaks havoc on cardiac health, which can be measured by a simple HRV score.
HRV and Predicting Mortality
According to Harvard Medical school, “Over the past few decades, research has shown a relationship between low HRV and worsening depression or anxiety. A low HRV is even associated with an increased risk of death and cardiovascular disease”(1). Given that HRV is a direct reflection of your ability to handle stress, your daily habits, and your skills around stress management, this isn’t surprising.
HRV takes into account everything about us, making it an incredibly clear representation of someone's current health and a predictor of health in the future. In relation to cardiac patients, an HRV score below 50 is not only considered to be extremely unhealthy, but it can also be a predictor for morbidity and mortality. HRV in the range of 50-80 is considered compromised and over 80 is considered to be healthy. Unfortunately given the state of health in our population, averages are far below these numbers. According to WHOOP, who is one of the largest health wearable technology companies, ‘The average heart rate variability for all WHOOP members is 65 for men and 62 for women.’’(2)
Why does this matter?
The world of health and fitness is in a place where we are finally recognizing that there is a difference between appearance and health. They are not synonymous. We are antiquating things like BMI, which used to be one of the most popular ways to observe our health. When trying to optimize health, there may be no better test than HRV. It is the culmination of everything in your life, and possibly the only data that incorporates lifestyle, nutrition, and even mental health. We have come to understand that mental health plays such a pivotal role in physical health, so it makes sense to use data that is at least partially derived from the emotional responses someone has to the world.
How to improve
Central Athlete Coach Steven defines health as “Controlling the controllables and letting go of the uncontrollables.’’ There may not be a better recipe for improving HRV. What does this look like? Having extreme ownership of what one can control such as workouts, relationships, and what is put into one’s body. Now allowing to be consumed or stressed by things one cannot control such as rush hour traffic or a bathroom leak. Establish a great sleep routine, do something fun every single day, and practice gratitude and intentional breathwork to help manage stress! Constantly working on this balance will work to improve HRV and thus the entire makeup of one's health. This is easier said than done! As coaches, we help work on all of the things that affect this important score. If you need some guidance, schedule a free strategy session here!