It’s bittersweet to write this final post.
Clearly, there’s an element of relief in completing the last assignment and knowing the semester is coming to an end (with no final to cram for!).
On the other hand, I’m oddly going to miss Wednesday nights together. For most of the semester, this has been my only opportunity each week for face-to-face(ish) conversations. I’ve also ironically enjoyed being forced to learn about topics I might not have otherwise. Heart Rate Variability is one such topic, a little outside my comfort zone yet still somewhat on the fringe of meditation and mindfulness.
What is Heart Rate Variability?
Heart Rate Variability (“HRV”) is the changing time interval between your heartbeats. This is different from heart rate which simply measures beats per minute. Your heart is supposed to beat faster or slower depending on your level of activity, mental state, environment and current stress. HRV is a good indicator of your stress resilience, that is, how well you are dealing with and recovering from stress.
High variability is a good thing. The higher your HRV, the more engaged your vagus nerve is and the more active your parasympathetic nervous system is (the one that controls “rest & digest” mode).
On the other hand, low HRV has been associated with inflammation, anxiety, depression, chronic overdose of stress hormones, and increased risk of heart disease.
A decrease in HRV from your own norm can mean your body is showing potential signs of stress, fatigue or illness. And a consistently low HRV suggests an overly active sympathetic nervous system (the one that controls “fight or flight” mode).
How Do You Measure Heart Rate Variability?
Before the emergence of wearables and smart phones, the only way to know your HRV was to head to your doctor for an electrocardiogram and professional analysis of the results. Now there are countless options to measure your HRV, and odds are that you may already have a device for this.
Here are a few good in-home options – no doctor visit (Zoom or otherwise) required!
Option #1: Use Your Apple Watch
You can use your watch with the Health app or spring for a more advanced HRV app like “Heart Analyzer.” You can manually initiate an HRV recording by doing a Breathe session, and then view your results in the Health app by following these instructions:
- Open the Health app on your iPhone.
- Select the Health Data tab.
- Tap on the Heart subsection.
- Select Heart Rate Variability.
Option #2: Use Your Fitbit
The downside of Fitbit is that you can’t manually initiate an HRV reading. You need to wear your device overnight to log your HRV. If you do this already, great! You can find your HRV in the Health Metrics tile in the Fitbit app with some nice dashboarding as seen below.
Option #3: Purchase a Heart Monitor & Download a Separate App
This is for the slightly more committed. There is an accuracy advantage if you go this route and purchase an actual in-home heart monitor vs using your Fitbit or Apple Watch, and these advanced apps take a more involved intervention approach.
The app Elite HRV appears to be the frontrunner for use outside of Apple Watch. I like that their website has an impressive science section with links to HRV research studies, all classified by health condition of interest. Here’s an overview of the results they advertise:
Elite HRV takes a bring-your-own-device approach. They have two recommended heart monitors. One is a Bluetooth finger monitor (like what you use at your doctor’s office) and goes for $165. The other is a Polar H10 chest strap model going for $83 on Amazon. Their cheapest compatible monitor is $50 out of pocket.
Whoop is another popular solution for those serious about monitoring your HRV. They have a “strap & app” solution. You get a free strap if you buy an app subscription that goes for $30/mo on a month-to-month package (see Whoop.com for more).
Both Elite HRV and Whoop cater to the more devout student of HRV, for example if you’re dealing with an underlying medical condition or an athlete in training. It’s 4 minutes a day for your morning heart reading, but you will get a highly accurate index of your health in general, and of your vagal nerve and parasympathetic nervous system activity specifically.
How to Make Your Score Meaningful
Consistency is key. For your scores to be meaningful, you have to give yourself some time to create a baseline and take your measurement every day at the same time and in the same body position. As soon as you wake up, before you get out of bed, is ideal. Any little stressor or change can throw off your HRV and give you inconsistent data.
Comparing your HRV to others can also be tricky. Normal HRV ranges are different depending on age, sex, and activity levels. This article on EliteHrv.com has helpful charts sorted by sex and age group to help you better understand your HRV. And remember, “normal” is good. If you’re stressing yourself out trying to gamify an HRV score, you’re missing the point.
How To Improve Your HRV
Whoop.com has a great succinct list of ten ways to increase your heart rate variability:
- Exercise and train appropriately
- Good nutrition
- Cut down on the alcohol
- Get some sleep
- Go outside
- Take a cold shower
- Intentional breathing
- Mindfulness & Meditation
See what I did there on those last three? You know I couldn’t finish the semester without some kind of tie to meditation or mindfulness, and gratitude was just a bonus.