These days, wearable devices are tracking more data than ever before. Between sleep, menstrual cycle, heart rate, steps, and exercise, wearable devices can present a health-conscious individual with a wealth of information. Over the last few years, one metric in particular has become especially popular: heart rate variability.

Heart rate variability (HRV) is when the amount of time between heartbeats fluctuates slightly. It is a normal occurrence, because our cardiovascular system needs to be able to adapt to sudden physical or psychological changes. A high HRV score indicates that the body is more resilient and adaptable to stressful scenarios, which trigger our sympathetic nervous system. Exercise, a tight work deadline, or sprinting to catch a bus are all examples of potentially stressful situations.

Low HRV, on the other hand, is considered problematic because it indicates the opposite: the body is less resilient, and, therefore, less capable of adapting to external stressors. It is more common to find low HRV in individuals with a high resting heart rate, as this means less variation in the time between heartbeats. 

What’s a Good Heart Rate Variability?

HRV naturally decreases with age. However, low HRV is also useful at predicting morbidity from mental health conditions such as chronic stress, anxiety, depression, and PTSD; as well as physical conditions like inflammation, chronic pain, asthma, diabetes, insomnia, concussions, and fatigue. In short, any condition that increases sympathetic drive (aka, our “fight or flight” response) can lower HRV.

This is because the vagus nerve  — which is the direct line of communication from the brain to the heart, lungs, and digestive system — controls HRV. Factors affecting HRV are birth sex, age, resting heart rate, alcohol or tobacco use, genetics, infection, or any of the health conditions mentioned above.

While high HRV is usually considered a good thing, an ideal HRV measurement will vary between individuals. If measuring, it’s helpful to track one’s own HRV trends to get an assessment of overall health. Measuring HRV is noninvasive and done through electrodes or light sensors on the skin.

How to Track Your Heart Rate Variability

Many wearable devices will now track HRV as one of their standard measurements. Devices such as the WHOOP strap or Oura ring are popular options, but it is worth mentioning that a standard EKG in a medical setting can also measure one’s HRV. (Although it may not be as easy to monitor HRV trends over time.)

The trade off with a wearable device over an EKG is that wearable devices are often not as accurate when compared to medical-grade devices. Some devices, such as the Garmin watches, require an external heart rate monitor strapped to the chest in order to measure HRV — and even then, the data may not be easily accessible. The most accessible devices for consumers are the WHOOP strap and Oura ring, although the Polar H10 chest monitor can also be purchased.

Improving Your Heart Rate Variability

If you’ve started monitoring your HRV and are wanting to improve your score, have no fear.

The best ways to improve your HRV score are also key health-promoting practices, such as regular exercise, regular eating patterns (including avoiding large meals for ~3 hours prior to bedtime), maintaining a consistent sleep/wake schedule, and incorporating slow breathing techniques into one’s routine, like yoga or meditation.


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