What is Heart Rate Variability?
Almost everyone is familiar with the heart rate monitor. Measuring your heart rate at various stages of rest and exertion can be a useful method for both safety and workout efficiency. Heart rate monitoring is used to determine an appropriate level of intensity for workouts, as well as a ensure a safe cool down. HRV is also considered a predictor of future cardiac arrest in higher risk patients. But what is Heart Rate Variability, and how is it different from a simple measure of your heart rate?
HRV refers to the degree that your heart rate varies beat to beat. Most people don’t know that a healthy heart beat is actually a fluctuation rather than a steady, perfectly timed measure. Within a one minute time frame, a heart rate monitor might detect that your heart beat 60 times. But this doesn’t address what exactly goes on within that minute. At what interval were those beats? This data is incredibly important. Low HRV is associated with patients suffering from diabetes and hypertensive disorders. On the contrary, a high HRV is a better indication of a healthy individual
Many factors affect HRV, including:
- Autonomic nervous system functions
- Physical or mental stress
- Prescription drugs like beta-blockers.
Why is High HRV Good?
As one cardiologist explains, your heart should ideally be able to change and react at a moment’s notice to external stimuli. HRV “tests” the performance of your cardiovascular system. Doctors compare it to a measure of your heart’s ability to react to stress. In other words, unhealthy hearts aren’t going to display the same reactions to stress—they don’t react. As you age, your HRV naturally declines. Doctors can determine how well your heart is responding to stress as you age using HRV monitoring, and determine if you are at increasing risk for heart failure.
But monitoring HRV doesn’t have to be a preventative safety measure. Endurance athletes also use Heart Rate Monitoring to gain an extra edge in their training. Your heart rate variability should be higher during higher stress activities, like strenuous exercise. This will persist for some time after you stop exercising, but you can use HRV to determine when you’ve made a full recovery. This prevents athletes from pushing themselves too far during a workout and hurting themselves.
How Accurate are Commercial Devices?
Doctors monitor your heart rate variability using ECG (or EKG) monitors, but these are not readily available to non-medical staff. Even during a standard doctor’s appointment, your HRV wouldn’t normally be taken. You also can’t actually use an EKG monitor while doing a CrossFit workout in a gym. Today, there are commercial devices marketed to the public that monitor your HRV 24-7. Rather than using a watch or wrist device to monitor HRV, you’ll need to use an elastic chest strap or a finger sensor to attain accurate enough results.
Improving your HRV
Rather than trying to improve your heart rate variability directly, you’ll want to work on improving your heart health itself. Meaning, if you’re a healthy person your HRV will also reflect that. If you do have low HRV, this is more of a symptom or indication that you may be at risk for cardiac issues. However, exercise is one of the best ways to improve your heart health and therefore your HRV. Exercise helps train your heart to handle stress and intensity. And of course, to boost heart health remember that smoking and poor diet are the greatest threats to your cardiac longevity. To learn more about where you stand, visit www.cvgcares.com to schedule an appointment with an experienced cardiologist!