What is Heart Rate Variability?
For those that don’t know, heart rate variability (HRV) is simply a measurement of the variation in time between each heartbeat. The heart does not beat at a regular interval and the variation between beats is controlled by the nervous system — more specifically the autonomic nervous system (ANS). You may be completely unaware of these subtle variations, but they reflect your heart’s ability to respond to different situations. HRV can be considered a biomarker that provides insight into stress levels, recovery status, and general well-being.
Why is it Important?
The ANS is constructed of two branches, the sympathetic and the parasympathetic. The sympathetic branch is associated with stress or the fight or flight system. Stress hormones are produced and the heart’s contraction rate increases. On the other hand is the parasympathetic branch which is characterized as the rest and digest system, allowing the body to recover. In a normal healthy situation, the HRV should increase during a relaxing activity while in a stressful situation the HRV will naturally decrease.
Factors You Can’t Control
Demographic (age, gender)
Emotion and Stress
Factors You Can Control
Sleep Routine (eg. room temperature)
Nutrition, Alcohol, Caffeine, Medication, Hydration
Measuring HRV is not complicated but does require a heart rate monitor. Regardless, there are some simple ways to improve your HRV that can help reduce stress and improve your general well-being.
- Breathing Exercises:
Improve your HRV, by practicing a breathing technique called box-breathing. The exercise is simple, inhale for 4 seconds, making sure to fill your belly and then your lungs with air. Hold the breath for 4 seconds, exhale for 4 seconds, steadily and slowly, hold for 4 seconds, and repeat the process.
Start integrating this practice in the morning by spending 5 minutes of box breathing. Treat it similar to practicing meditation, where if your mind begins to wander, bring it back to the breath, and continue the process.
Meditation has a host of mental and physical health benefits. The practice of meditation is not a complex process since it is the act of stoping and allowing one to clear their thoughts. There are many forms of meditation, so if one form is not working for you now, it might be best to practice another. If you are new to meditation or looking for different options, try using Headspace, Sam Harris’ Waking Up, or Oak.
3. Cold Showers:
Cold showers where cold stimulation is focused on the lateral neck region can result in a higher HRV and assist in modulating stress responses. Similar to breathing exercises, ease into the practice. Try approaching the desired temperature over a two minute period rather than going straight into the cold temperature. Another approach is the contrast method where you expose to 60 seconds of cold followed by 20 seconds of hot. This ratio allows your muscles a few seconds to ease up and improve circulation.
Heart Rate Variability
Think of HRV as a preventative tool, providing measurements that can help create more awareness of how behavior affects the nervous system and bodily functions. While HRV obviously can’t help you avoid stress, it can help you understand how to respond to stress in a healthier way and motivate future behavioral changes.