What is Heart Rate Variability and Who Cares?
If you are interested in being healthy and fit, your Heart Rate Variability (HRV) is one of the best single metrics to pay attention to.
The rise of fitness gadgets has introduced many new metrics to us professionals and the general public. At SPU we’ve found that HRV is one of the more useful and interesting metrics.
It used to be practically impossible to get the measurement outside a hospital setting, but now it is super easy with tools like the Oura-ring.
So, here’s the 101 of HRV, because with it you can make smart decisions about your training, sleep, and nutrition and actually see the benefits of your hard work objectively!
Who cares about HRV and why?
Before getting down to the nitty-gritty, it’s worth noting that HRV is used in many fields. The medical community, athletes and nowadays even general health and fitness enthusiasts are paying attention to HRV – and you should too.
HRV deserves our attention because it is a powerful metric that tells us a lot about the big picture of your health and fitness, stress, chronic health problems and it correlates with 9/10 top causes of death, like cancer, heart disease, stroke, and Alzheimer’s disease.
Furthermore, with HRV you can make educated and individualized decisions about exercise, eating and sleep on the spot. This means that less time has to be spent thinking the right thing to do at the gym, the right foods to eat or what to do about sleep.
When it comes to any demographic that is after high performance – athletes, business owners, executives, professionals – the HRV is an amazing tool to guide you to sustainable and smartly managed success.
What is HRV?
The technical definition of HRV is “the inter-beat variability between successive heart contractions”. It is the time between two heartbeats when compared to the time between another two heartbeats.
Understanding this can be a bit tricky. The easiest way to understand it is by thinking about a specific HRV reading.
So let’s say you have an HRV reading of 70 ms (milliseconds) and your normal heart rate is 60 beats per minute, 1 beat per second. 1 second is 1000 milliseconds, so on average, the distance between two heartbeats is that.
But the heart rate isn’t exactly the same all the time – this is where the HRV reading comes into play. With the average of 1000 milliseconds, the 70 ms reading means that the actual time between heartbeats can be + or – 35 ms (70 ms in total) from the 1000 ms average.
So the heart rate “lives” a bit and isn’t set in stone, even when you are resting. This simple observation has huge implications. In general, the higher the reading, the better you’ll be at adapting to whatever life throws at you – and the lower the reading the more stressed out or poorly recovered you are.
In essence the higher your HRV the more you have reserves to tolerate higher amounts of stress.
THE BIG TAKE AWAY POINT is that this little reading tells how well you as a living being are adjusting to the stress of your environment. Work, exercise, relationships, sleep, diet, air quality, you name it. All these affect HRV and that’s why monitoring it is such a good idea to get the big picture of your current health and fitness levels.
This wraps up the first of three sections. Before going on to the practical steps to take, I’ll explain the deeper lessons behind HRV, so you won’t be left wondering about the recommendations at the end.
5 important lessons behind Heart Rate Variability
There are several areas we can look at when it comes to HRV. But underneath these lies the connection between inflammation – the body’s way of responding to stress and whether or not it is acute or chronic.
1 . Chronic disease
As mentioned before HRV correlates with many killer diseases of our time. Heart disease, cancer, stroke, Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, influenza, pneumonia and even suicide (depression seems to be linked to inflammation) are on the list.
Too much stress and poor lifestyle lead to higher levels of chronic inflammation and increased risk of the aforementioned diseases.
To put it bluntly, a poor HRV reading that persists for long periods of time might be a sign that you are on a path towards a big nasty bag of health problems down the line.
Luckily, there are many things to improve your result and the next 4 points are going to tell you what they are!
2 . Exercise and training
Exercise and training are super important when it comes to managing and improving your HRV. By exercise we mean any physical activity you do just for the sake of it, like playing hockey, soccer or going on a bicycle ride. But, at the gym we train, which means that we apply a certain amount of stress so you can recover from it and get better each time.
To improve your HRV both aerobic (cardio) and anaerobic (lifting weights) training is a good idea. The better shape you are in, the better your HRV.
However, it is important to understand that when looking at the HRV you should look at the long term trends over days and weeks. After a tough session at the gym, your HRV will go down because you are recovering from the workout and your body produces acute, short term inflammation as a result.
This short term inflammation is the healing process that makes you fitter and stronger. On the other hand, if you’re constantly pushing it to the limit in training, your inflammation levels will keep rising, HRV will go down and you’ll get closer to overtraining. Paying attention to HRV can help make the right training decisions to avoid this from occurring, especially for busy, stressed-out people.
3 . Diet
Most likely anyone reading this has heard about some foods causing inflammation and others reducing it. There is truth to this idea, but obsessing and stressing about food is not a smart decision if you want to have a healthy relationship towards food.
The two biggest offenders you might want to look after are alcohol and sugar. They cause inflammation and at the same, it is easy to consume too much of them. Keeping your weight and body fat in check becomes way harder if you constantly overindulge in calories dense foods – and being overweight is a major factor in bad overall fitness and low HRV readings.
As no surprise, vegetables are always a good idea to combat inflammation, so get those in. Dark green is the color of choice and combined with herbs and spices (ginger and turmeric are great!) you’ll be golden.
Ultimately individual tolerances, intolerances, and overall lifestyle matter the most. It makes no sense to try to eat only leafy greens and wild fish if you are living a busy life in the city with many business lunches and a hectic schedule. Simply experiment and avoid some of the things you know to be worst for you to reap the easiest benefits for you HRV.
4 . Sleep
Sleep is the best thing you can do for your recovery. Nothing beats getting good quality sleep consistently and it is the backbone of your health and fitness.
The classic tips of trying to get 8 hours a night, making sure to sleep in a cool, dark place and making sure your circadian rhythm (your sleep schedule) is as regular as possible apply here.
To further enhance your sleep you can try getting rid of screens close to bedtime, meditation or even some CBD-oil, which we’ve found to double the deep sleep in some cases. The Oura-ring is a valuable tool here when monitoring your sleep quality.
5 . Environment
The environment isn’t something we can control too easily. Here are some of the things that can cause issues with HRV and inflammation: air pollution, low-quality water, pollution, and chemicals. Overall these things are not a problem in Finland.
But when it comes to air inside some issues might arise. Low-quality air with a lot of dust or in the worst case mold can be very inflammatory. If you constantly need to battle against poor air inside, it is likely that your HRV is lowered chronically.
What to do about your HRV?
Now you know who uses Heart Rate Variability and why. To put it all into an actionable plan, here’s what to do.
First you need a tool – like the Oura-ring – to get a baseline for your HRV. You do this by getting about 5 readings for 10 days.
Calculate the average and start paying attention to how it reacts to different things. You’ll quickly notice how training, certain meals, sleep habits, alcohol, and stress all affect HRV in their own ways.
After you start getting the hang of it, start experimenting with different things to start improving your HRV. Here are our top picks for things to make that happen.
1 . If you notice your HRV to be lower than normal, consider doing about 3/4 of your workout to reduce the overall stress load. A simple way to do this is, for example, to cut every 4th set out from your program.
2 . If your HRV is really low, consider doing some lighter exercise altogether, instead of a weightlifting session.
3 . Prioritize sleep. If you can, track your sleep and study the patterns. You’ll notice quickly that certain times of the evening are better to get to sleep and the same applies for getting up. Usually, the answer is to get up earlier and go to sleep earlier. As a wise man once said, that starts by getting up earlier, so don’t be afraid to do that.
4 . Eat healthy, avoid smoking and drinking alcohol. Look at your eating habits and figure out with your coach what are the simplest and easiest adjustments to get the most benefits.
5 . Relax better. Massages are for example a very good way to increase your HRV and aid in the whole recovery process.
6 . Build a habit of walking. The Golden Rule of walking is 10 000 steps a day. If you can do that consistently, you are getting a big boost to your overall health and your HRV. Discuss with your coach the best strategies to achieve this.
That’s it. Not quite everything about HRV, but a damn good overall view.
In summary, HRV is a powerful metric used by medical professionals, athletes and fitness enthusiasts. It can guide your decision making when looking for better health and performance outcomes, for anyone who is under a lot of stress. Using the HRV is simple with a tracking device like Oura, and many everyday habits can be used to get a better reading over the long term.
Measure your HRV, adjust your lifestyle slowly and you’ll see the result get better and your health and performance improve.
Thanks for reading!