Imagine that you’re about to enter your annual review with your boss, or you’re trying to merge during rush hour traffic. Your physical response to these stressful situations is a higher rate, naturally. But once the stressful situation is over, how long does it take your heart rate to return to normal?
That variation is the metric we’re exploring when we talk about heart rate variability. Here’s what heart rate variability is and why it’s considered an important indicator of cardiovascular health and the ability to handle stress.
What is heart rate variability?
Heart rate variability (or HRV) is a measure of the variation in time between each heartbeat. HRV is controlled by the autonomic nervous system, which is the master controller of the sympathetic (fight vs. flight) and parasympathetic (rest and digest) nervous systems. The autonomic nervous system is always running in the background of your body, controlling heart rate, breathing, blood pressure, and digestion.
Why is heart rate variability important?
Heart rate variability is one of the best objective measurements of stress. The goal is to have a “high” variability, which means your body handles stress well and can adapt to various situations. A high HRV is associated with activation of your parasympathetic system, as well as general physical fitness and good recovery (especially as it relates to sleep quality).
Meanwhile, a low HRV has been linked to an increased risk of early death and cardiovascular disease. Low HRV is linked to the activation of your “fight-or-flight” system, chronic stress (both good and bad), illness, and overtraining. If you notice a low HRV on one of your fitness trackers, it means your body isn’t feeling recovered and you should prioritize rest, sleep, and light workouts.
While HRV is still catching on throughout the general public, it’s only going to get more commonplace. In fact, some insurance companies and underwriters are looking at HRV as a predictive measure when it comes to setting rates for life/health insurance. Your best bet, then, is to improve your heart rate variability now to benefit yourlong-term health.
How to improve heart rate variability
Traditional knowledge says we have no control over heart rate variability, but recent research suggests that you can improve HRV through exercise therapy, breathing techniques, and more. Here’s how to improve your heart rate variability.
Exercise: In particular, tabata based training stresses the body for a short period of time. The hormetic effect (time after exercise) is where HRV increases. Aerobic exercise and Zone 2 heart rate zone training is also effective.
Environment: Humans are intended to spend time outside. Current work environments are not conducive to health so we must be intentional with our schedules and daily habits. Start by spending time outside every morning to expose yourself to sunlight.
Cold exposure: This provides a brief stressor to the body and stimulates the vagus nerve. The time following cold exposure is where the magic happens. Try a cold water plunge, an ice bath, or a cold shower.
Stress management: Acute stressors such as exercise, fasting, cold, and heat are all good for the body. Chronic stress does the opposite. Adopting a daily stress management practice is highly beneficial for long term health and HRV. A daily breathing practice is highly beneficial for stimulating the vagus nerve and increasing HRV.
Want more specific ways to improve your heart rate variability? We include personalized recommendations and suggested lifestyle changes in your Wild Health Personalized Report. Learn more about how we can help you improve your longevity by booking a free coaching call.