If you think your heart beats at a regular interval like a metronome, think again.
We have a natural variability in the spacing between our heart beats. This phenomenon is called heart rate variability, and HRV for short. It says a lot about our bodily systems, which is why athletes and health enthusiasts alike have been so interested in this, and why you should be too.
Simply put, HRV is a measurement of the balance between your parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems. These two systems make up the autonomic nervous system, which handles about 90% of the body’s involuntary functions. The sympathetic nervous system is what kicks into gear when we are stressed or in danger.
We sweat, our heart rate goes up, and the interval between our heart beats goes down. Our body is primed to either fight or flight. The parasympathetic nervous system is pretty much the opposite, and it functions like a brake by disabling the sympathetic nervous system. Called the rest and digest response, it activates when we are in a relaxed state, and engages processes such as the production of saliva and peristalsis. It slows the heart rate, and with greater intervals between beats.
HRV is a measure of Wellbeing
When in balance, your heart produces a high HRV through a more variable heart rate. The more variable your heart rate, the more you can readily respond to your environment and switch gears between these two systems. It’s one of the most accurate measurements of overall health that we can get without taking blood tests or body scans.
High HRV is an indication of cardiovascular health, fitness, willpower, calm and positive emotions, and your capacity to handle stress.
The lower your HRV, the less capacity for stress that you have in your body, so the more likely you are to feel anxious, tired or burnt out at the end of the day.
Low HRV is also related to inflammation, chronic stress, chronic pain, depression, cancer and low emotional flexibility.
HRV is used in professional sports to predict injury, and by forward thinking doctors to diagnose disease. Many smartwatches now can indicate your stress levels by measuring HRV through your wrist pulse.
HRV is a huge predictor of persistence and self-control, and it increases when exerting self-regulation.
This mechanism is called the pause and plan response.
HRV training is easy
By changing our physiology, we can manipulate our HRV and there are several ways to improve your HRV.
The simplest way to improve your HRV is through breathing at a rate, which is called Coherent Breathing. By slowing down your breathing, you can activate the parasympathetic nervous system and raise your HRV, which causes your heart rate and blood pressure to synchronize with your respiration, resulting in a state that the HeartMath institute calls coherence.
For most people the optimal breathing rate is will be around 6 seconds in, 6 seconds out. 5 breaths a minute might feel slow, particularly if you do suffer with stress or anxiety, but you will feel the benefits immediately.
Doing a minimum 10 minutes of this breathing every day, you can develop the skill of producing a state of coherence at any given moment. Activating this state, you can get into the zone so to speak, and increase your performance for single actions such as swinging a golf club or presenting to a group.
HRV training has shown to be incredibly beneficial for children with overactive sympathetic nervous systems and resulting belly aches. After a few weeks of daily training, they show massive improvements in their baseline HRV and can function much better.
Some autoimmune conditions related to the gut have been helped by this type of training as well, as our gut permeability is closely related to our parasympathetic nervous system. Other benefits of HRV breathing include improved pain management in conditions such as fibromyalgia and chronic muscle pain.
It can help with asthma, depression, hypertension, and self-control. It’s also great for stress management. Around 20% of people will feel sleepy from following this breathing rhythm, which makes it a great tool for getting high quality sleep every night.
Coherent Breathing to improve HRV
The pacer video above helps you breathe at a coherent rate, for free!
HRV in the palm of your hand
The interest in HRV has increased substantially the past decade, and several consumer technologies have emerged to help measure your personal HRV metrics.
The most accessible way to accurately measure your HRV is to use a free app called Welltory. This measures your HRV using your phone camera, and it provides insight into your stress levels. I use this with my clients suffering from burnout, chronic stress and anxiety as a way to get objective insight into their wellbeing.
If you want to use HRV to improve your stress levels, then you want the Heartmath Inner Balance, which helps you train your nervous system to respond better to stress, it’s my preferred method of HRV Training, as I’m able to measure their HRV on a daily basis and adjust their training to help them recover quickly from burnout or improve their performance in high pressure situations.
#hrv #heartratevariability #welltory #heartmath #coaching