Tracking data about your health can reveal patterns and unveil potential health issues. Heart rate variability (HRV) tracking is gaining popularity. It is a measurement that can be used to tell us our current level of wellness and reveals how our bodies are responding to stress.
Table of Contents
What is HRV?
Did you know that your heartbeat does not occur at equal intervals? HRV is a measure of the variability in timing between each heartbeat. This is quite different from your heart rate, which is the number of times your heart beats per minute (bpm).
HRV is a wellness marker that is controlled by the autonomic nervous system (ANS). In addition to heart rate, the ANS also regulates other involuntary bodily processes like breathing, blood pressure, and digestion.
There are two divisions of the ANS: the sympathetic (fight-or-flight) and parasympathetic (rest and digest) nervous systems. Whether we utilize the sympathetic or parasympathetic systems depends on how internal and external inputs are processed by the brain’s hypothalamus.
Once an input is processed by the hypothalamus, our bodies are then told how to respond based on which branch of the autonomic system is firing. Stress of any kind triggers the sympathetic division, and relaxation triggers the parasympathetic division.
This measurement exposes the current levels of stress in the body – showing you how balanced your sympathetic and parasympathetic divisions are. Too much stress (of any form) can cause something called sympathetic dominance. This means that your hypothalamus is processing most inputs as threats. This triggers the fight-or-flight response, and ultimately leading to a reduction in your HRV.
If your body is relaxed and able to manage stress well, then the variation between beats will be higher. Higher scores indicate that you are in parasympathetic dominance.
What does your HRV tell you?
You can use your HRV score to make informed decisions about how to adjust your daily schedule and lifestyle habits to your advantage. In general, a high HRV score (above 70) indicates that you are managing stress very well, whereas low HRV can signal that you need to take a rest and focus on your wellbeing.
For someone with a low HRV (below 70), it is probably best to skip the HIIT workout and instead opt for a light walk or some stretching and meditation. On the other hand, those with a higher HRV should be able to take on more intense workouts with less stress on the body.
This is how tracking your HRV helps you to make better choices about your lifestyle on a daily basis. Knowing your HRV allows you to better understand your body and its current needs. You can use this information to make informed decisions about your training and lifestyle habits
Between different people, HRV is highly individualized and naturally decreases with age. Athletic populations and men typically have higher HRV scores than non-athletes and women. Since HRV is highly individual, it is imperative to compare your score to your own past scores, rather than comparing them to someone else’s scores. It’s all about the trends in your personal health.
Benefits of high heart rate variability
Higher HRV scores indicate that your heart is able to switch gears more quickly depending on your activity, reflecting higher efficiency and performance. A high score also reflects that the body is under low stress or that it is easily able to recover from stressful events.
People with high HRV generally live longer, healthier lives and are less likely to develop chronic conditions, mood disorders, or have a negative health event like a stroke or heart attack.
Why is low HRV a problem?
If you have low HRV, your body is probably under stress. This can occur after an unusually stressful day, a single bad night of sleep, or after an intense workout. This demonstrates why a single instance of a lower HRV score than usual is not something to worry too much about. It is more important to focus on patterns and trends.
If you consistently have a low HRV score, it is likely that you are less resilient in the face of stress, which can lead to negative outcomes in the long run. Less resilience means that you have more difficulty in bouncing back after a stressful event, and your body feels the consequences.
Low HRV is connected to an increased risk of heart disease, heart attacks, strokes, diabetes, and mood disorders like depression and anxiety. People with high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and chronic stress are more likely to have lower HRV scores.
Note that it is also possible to be completely healthy and have a lower HRV score. These are just the general associations with low HRV and not a sealed fate.
What impacts your HRV score?
- Poor sleep or altered circadian rhythm
- Illness, disease, chronic conditions
- Smoking and alcohol
- Stress (especially chronic stress)
- Poor diet or undereating
- Working out too much, too long, or too intensely
- Not taking rest days
- Sedentary lifestyle
- Age (decreases with age)
- Gender (lower for women)
These are the things that you should look into remedying when your HRV score is low (except the final three bullets – which you cannot change). Improving these things by making strategic lifestyle changes is essential for improving your overall health.
Increasing heart rate variability
Gaining resilience to stress is definitely possible, so those who have consistently low or decreasing HRV scores should not feel at a loss.
Making steps to improve your diet, focus on sleep and optimizing your circadian rhythms, practice relaxation techniques, and getting adequate amounts of exercise will help you to improve stress resilience and raise your HRV score.
Relaxation techniques and deep breathing practices can upregulate your HRV. Try vagus nerve stimulation to improve your body’s ability to get into a parasympathetic, rest and digest state.
Stimulate your vagus nerve by:
- Gargling (until your eyes water)
- Singing and humming
- End showers with at least 30 seconds of a cold water blast to the back of your neck
- Washing face with cold water
- Slow, deep breathing
Drinking alcohol lowers HRV, so if you are looking to increase your score – maybe hold off on that glass of wine until your score improves. Instead, opt for plenty of water – aiming for about 1 oz per pound of body weight.
Exercise is one of the best ways to improve your heart rate variability. Be sure to complete at least 30 minutes of light to moderate exercise, 5 days per week. Also, try not to spend the rest of your day seated. If you have a desk job, look into purchasing a standing desk extender.
For some people, an underlying condition may be impacting your HRV score. If you notice low HRV, mention this to your healthcare provider and they may recommend running additional testing to make sure you don’t have an issue with your heart or nervous system.
Measuring heart rate variability
In the past, HRV was only measured by analyzing an electrocardiogram (ECG) in a medical setting. The ECG is still the gold standard for HRV measurement, but there are also devices and smartphone apps that allow you to measure your HRV.
Some apps work to measure your HRV is by holding your pointer finger over your camera’s flash for about one minute as the app measures your pulse rate. Other apps require an external device to measure your HRV such as a chest strap monitor, fitness watch (major note on this below), or finger monitor.
It is recommended to measure your HRV in the morning, just after waking. You can do this daily or just a few times per week. Some of the apps/devices are designed to measure these without you having to do anything extra – so tracking your HRV can actually be very simple.
You can then make lifestyle changes based on your personal HRV trend and find out what works – and what does not work – for you and your health goals.
Our top choices for HRV monitor options
Elite HRV app
One of the best apps for tracking HRV is Elite HRV. Simply download this free app and use an external monitor, like a heart rate monitor chest strap, to analyze your HRV.
Apple watch and other fitness watches
The Apple watch takes automatic HRV measurements throughout the day and logs it in the Health app on your iPhone. One thing to note: any movement and watch position can drastically affect these measurements. This is not always going to be the most reliable method unless you are choosing the moment you start tracking with another app. Elite HRV is not compatible with Apple watch.
In fact, it is not recommended to solely rely on fitness watches or wrist monitors in general for HRV measurements because they are less likely to give you accurate results. Most fitness watches are able to accurately measure heartrate because that is what they are designed to do.
However, HRV is about the tiny changes between heart beats. You can have two people with a 60 bpm heartrate, who have massively different HRV scores. Our advice – invest in a device that will accurately measure HRV. Why waste time worrying about inaccurate HRV stats?
Oura ring and Whoop strap
If you prefer to use a device that is designed to measure HRV, you have a few options. The most popular and reputable choices are the Oura ring and Whoop strap. The Elite HRV app also sells a finger monitor that has the same accuracy as a chest strap.
Don’t feel overwhelmed if your HRV seems low, and don’t think you’re at the epitome of health if your HRV is high. HRV is not the end-all-be-all determinant of health, and the accuracy of the apps/monitors is not always 100%. Think of using HRV tracking as another tool that can help you learn more about your body and use it to help guide healthy lifestyle changes.