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Heart Rate Variability

Difference between life or stress.

If you were to ask yourself when is the last time you made a conscious effort to relax your mind, body and spirit, would you tell me one week? one month? Never?

If you are the in the never or maybe, once a year with a friend who took you along to a meditation center, then you might be in chronic stress which can affect your HRV.

 

Let’s talk a bit about what HRV is and its components.

 

Your ‘adaptive reserves’

Your in-the-moment ability to handle physical, emotional and mental stress is also called your “adaptive reserves”.

We could say that sleep, physical activity and a nutritious diet along with proper food timing such as stated on the podcast with Satchin Panda build up these adaptive reserves. Stress over chronic periods of time that don’t let the body take a break would then deplete the reserves.

 

Easy to measure your HRV

It also turns out that there is a simple way to measure your adaptive reserves throughout the day. You can do this by observing a simple metric: your “Heart Rate Variability” (HRV).

Wearing a heart rate monitor for 24/7 for a few weeks and will give enough data set for the mobile apps to work. Just search for heart rate variability in your smart phone to find the one that works best with your heart rate monitor.

 

What is Heart Rate Variability?

Your heart rate might be 60 beats per minute, or it might be 120 bpm. But what we’re talking about here is the interval between two heart beats.

And that interval might change from heartbeat to heartbeat.

A low HRV means that the interval is always the same.
A high HRV means that there is variation in the length of the interval.

 

Why is HRV important?

A low HRV is a sign of the sympathetic autonomic nervous system (also called the “fight-or-flight” system, or the stress system).

And a higher HRV is associated with the sympathetic nervous system (or the relaxed state).

 

Our autonomic nervous system has two components: the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. These two take turns in running the show.When we’re relaxed, or engaged in restful activities like eating and digesting, it’s because our parasympathetic nervous system is active (the “rest-and-digest” response).

On the other hand, it is the sympathetic nervous system that is responsible for stimulating activities associated with the “fight-or-flight” response.

 

Sympathetic activities such as intense physical exercise, as well as periods of mental stress:

  • increase heart rate (HR)
  • and decrease our heart rate variability (HRV)

Parasympathetic activities (relaxing, doing yoga, meditating), in contrast:

  • decrease heart rate
  • increase heart rate variability

 

Creating balance

Of course the trick is to have a good balance between the two nervous systems. A healthy person has a strong sympathetic AND parasympathetic system. Including the ability to shift between the two.

But the main weakness of people in our modern-day society is a neglected parasympathetic system. There’s so much action going on and stress involved in our daily lives. In general, we’re too busy and don’t get enough rest.

 

A high variable heart rate is a sign of health

Heart rate variability is an important metric because, in general, a high variable heart rate is a sign of health.

It is a sign of the flexibility of the heart (as opposed to a rigidity) and of the capacity of the autonomic nervous system to adapt to changes in the demands we face every day.

Predictive aspects of your HRV

HRV measurements have been shown to be able to predict a likelihood of diseases occurring in the future (like diabetes or heart disease).

 

Though the studies are not conclusive of cause and effect there is a strong correlation between a heart rate variable showing your days that you are too stressed to work out. If you are in the this area of chronic stress your heart shows that you shouldn’t workout that day and take a break. Over time of working only on your “good days” you find that you will have more good days and less chronic stress. Your body is properly adapting to the workouts.

 

Heart Rate Variability biofeedback therapy

Originally, the use of HRV biofeedback therapy began in Russia, where it was applied to the treatment of asthma and many other conditions.

Research is now going on where HRV biofeedback is applied to various medical conditions, like:

  • anger
  • anxiety disorders
  • asthma
  • cardiovascular conditions
  • chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder
  • irritable bowel syndrome
  • chronic fatigue
  • chronic pain

By learning to control HRV or use the data to know when you are most stress you can use mediation and new sleeping patterns to improve your stress levels while awake.

 

Athletes

Athletes can use HRV analysis in 2 ways:

  • to measure their overall fitness level (as shown by long-term changes in HRV)
  • to measure training load and overtraining (as shown by the short-term or daily changes in HRV)

To measure any signs of overtraining, athletes check their HRV first thing in the morning.

A drop in HRV (too much sympathetic activity) is linked to fatigue and overtraining. That’s when there’s a need to take time out to recover.

Personal use

You can also use HRV biofeedback to learn to get your HRV in the right ‘zone’. You don’t need to go to a professional for this, there are devices available on the market so you can do it yourself.

And, aside from fitness goals, you can also test activities yourself (with the same tools and apps mentioned before). You can do this before and after those activities. In this way you can see what has a positive effect on your HRV.

 

What increases HRV?

Read this post where Todd Becker of gettingstronger.org experiments with different activities that boost or decrease his HRV:

The Best Activity to Increase your Heart Rate Variability

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