Your heart is not a metronome

A long held belief that heart health is measured by a steady beat- much like a metronome-is in fact an indicator of poor heart health. But, you ask, isn’t a steady heart rate number, like the magic number you strive for with BMI, cholesterol, etc, the goal number suggesting gilt-edge health and fitness perfection?

The true indicator of heart health is greater variation in the intervals between heart beats. Heart Rate Variability (HRV) is a biomarker of overall health and fitness- the higher the HRV, the greater your resilience and lower your stress level.* This is because a healthy heart pumps as needed, responding to the body’s needs without predetermined intervals. Though- there can be too much variability which would fall into the realm of arrhythmia or nervous system disorders.

“We now know that the normal resting rhythm of the heart is highly variable rather than being monotonously regular, which was the widespread notion for many years,” -Global Advances in Health and Medicine (GAHM)

So as cardiac specialists will tell you, a heart that beats with identical length between each pulse (low HRV) is not good, and a heart that beats at a more fractal pattern is good. With low variability they can determine the following heart risks:

  • fetal distress
  • nervous system disorders
  • heart disease and multiple metabolic syndrome-¬†diabetes, hypertension, high cholesterol
  • anxiety, depression
  • asthma and more

“Too little variation indicates age-related system depletion, chronic stress, pathology, or inadequate functioning in various levels of self-regulatory control systems.”**

What does this mean for training- for both the competitive athlete and someone like me who enjoys regular activity?

Keep in mind, a high HRV suggests a relaxed, low stress physiological state and a lower HRV shows a need for recovery and rest. Thus competitive athletes monitor HRV to plan their workouts and rest time, pinpoint optimal training and competing times, and avoid overtraining. For the rest of us, it is a useful biomarker for health and resilience. You can learn more about how to track HRV here.

What to do to increase HRV?

We know the obvious- adequate sleep, regular exercise and managing stress levels. Mark Sisson from marksdailyapple.com and the founder of Primal Blueprint goes on to add research-based tips:

  • rest (not sleep, but chilling out after any stressor)
  • drink green tea or take l-theanine
  • don’t procrastinate (self-sabotage!)
  • don’t commute too far
  • choose work that is rewarding
  • yoga/meditation/nature/deep breathing/forgiveness
  • exercise while pregnant which increases fetal HRV

What devices do I need to measure HRV?

A Bluetooth enabled heart rate monitor and mobile application
Top rated monitors (watch, chest strap and other features) can be found here at Amazon.com.
A mobile application like Elite HRV for Android and Apple. It’s free!

Do you have experience with tracking your HRV? What is your method?

Resources

*Sweet Water Health
**Heart Rate Variability: New Perspectives on the Physiological Mechanisms, and Assessment of Self-Regulatory Capacity and Health Risk. The authors are HeartMath Institute (HMI) Director of Research Rollin McCraty, Ph.D. and Fred Shaffer, Ph.D., BCB of the Center for Applied Psychophysiology, Truman State University, Kirksville, Mo.
More on measuring your HRV here.
Mark’s Daily Apple: search HRV on his site, he has several posts

 

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