Skip to content Skip to footer

How much should you care about heart rate variability?

Heart rate variability, or the average time in milliseconds between consecutive heart beats, is one of the most informative indicators to your current state of physical and mental readiness and reveals whether you’re able to perform at your fullest potential. Learn how to track, understand and increase to this crucial metric and you’ll be rewarded with a wealth of immediate health and performance benefits, as well as increasing your chances of living a longer and happier life

Over the last few years, thanks to the rise of smartwatches, tech wearables and artificial intelligence, personal health data is more accessible than ever, with millions of us tracking our daily activities on a semi-religious basis, whether that’s step count, sleep duration and quality, calories consumed and burned, and resting and maximum heart rate.

Of all the health data now at our fingertips, heart rate variability (HRV) has emerged as one of the most crucial metric in the dashboard of your daily wellness tracking, yet it remains one of the least appreciated and least understood by most of the people who track it.

While resting heart rate and average heart rate are useful in their own ways your heart rate variability – which measures the time variation between each of your heartbeats – provides a far deeper and truer insight into your physiological and psychological state, and gives you an instant insight in your current physical and mental wellbeing and readiness to perform.

In short, understanding your own HRV can unlock profound insights into your health and fitness, as well as being an early-warning system to identify illness and injury before they become evident.

In this Unfiltered expert guide we’ve demystified heart rate variability to answer your most common questions about this crucial metric – including what you can do, starting today to improve your HRV score – to give you all the information you need to start living the fitter, happier and healthier life you want.

What is heart rate variability and why is it so important?

Heart rate variability (HRV) is the measure of the variation in time between consecutive heartbeats, which is controlled largely by the autonomic nervous system. While the heart might seem like a metronome, the subtle variations in its rhythm provide critical insights into our broader health and fitness levels.

For example, if your resting heart rate is 60 beats per minute, that’s an average: it doesn’t mean that your heart is beating on the second, every second, like clockwork. This subtle variability between heartbeats provides a real-time snapshot of the performance and function of autonomic nervous system.

A higher HRV typically indicates better cardiovascular fitness, increased resilience and heightened stress management capabilities, as well as recovery status and overall heart health. A lower HRV indicates the opposite: you’re over-stressed and under-recovered, less able to deal with stress, unable to perform physically or mentally near your best, or suffering from short-term illness or longer-term health concerns.

And that’s the real value of HRV: yes, it’s a very useful tool to identify when you are able to perform at the peak of your abilities, and offer clues about how you’re sleeping and your ability to tolerate stress. But it can also provide an early warning system for more serious health problems. For instance, research published in The American Journal of Cardiology showed correlations between HRV and various health outcomes, including cardiovascular health, longevity, and susceptibility to stress-related illnesses.

What are the key factors that influence heart rate variability?

Several factors can significantly influence HRV, ranging from physiological to environmental influences. Key physiological factors include age, genetics, and baseline fitness levels, with younger individuals and those in better cardiovascular condition generally exhibiting higher HRV.

Lifestyle factors also play a critical role: sleep quality, physical activity, stress levels, and diet all impact HRV. Consistent physical activity has been shown to improve HRV, while stress and poor sleep can significantly diminish it. Nutritional choices, hydration levels, and even environmental factors such as temperature and altitude affect HRV. A study in the Journal of Human Hypertension highlighted that even mild dehydration can impact HRV readings, reflecting its sensitivity to body homeostasis.

From a physiological standpoint, the autonomic nervous system’s balance is pivotal. The sympathetic (“fight or flight”) and parasympathetic (“rest and digest”) branches exert opposite effects on heart rate variability; where sympathetic activity tends to decrease HRV, parasympathetic activity increases it.

A study in Journal of Clinical Medicine found that stress management and improved sleep quality positively correlate with higher HRV, indicating better autonomic balance and resilience to stress.

What is a good HRV score?

A “good” HRV score varies widely depending on age, sex, and individual health conditions. Typically, HRV decreases with age, and baseline levels can differ between genders, with males often displaying slightly higher variability than females. General benchmarking suggests that for adults, an HRV score above the median specific to one’s age and gender group is considered good, reflecting stronger autonomic balance and cardiovascular health.

Health professionals often use tools such as the RMSSD (Root Mean Square of the Successive Differences) to measure HRV. A higher RMSSD value generally indicates better heart health and stress resilience. For instance, a RMSSD value of over 50ms (milliseconds) is typically viewed as good for adults, but athletes and highly-active individuals may achieve higher scores.

Research has repeatedly demonstrated that personal trends and changes in HRV over time are more instructive than absolute numbers, emphasising the importance of consistent monitoring for meaningful insights and why you should worry too much about other peoples’ HRV score.

Why should I try to increase my heart rate variability?

Increasing heart rate variability (HRV) offers a host of tangible benefits that directly translate into improved health and well-being. Here are some key advantages.

Enhanced Stress Resilience: Individuals with higher HRV have shown greater ability to cope with stress. This is because a higher HRV indicates a more agile autonomic nervous system, particularly a robust parasympathetic response, which helps the body calm down more quickly after stressful situations. For example, emergency workers or military personnel who maintain higher HRV levels are often able to remain calm and focused under extreme pressure, facilitating better decision-making and reducing the risk of burnout.

Improved Cardiovascular Health: A higher HRV is associated with reduced risk of cardiovascular diseases. It reflects a healthy balance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic branches of the autonomic nervous system, essential for cardiovascular resilience and adaptability. For instance, a study published in the European Heart Journal found that patients with higher HRV had a lower likelihood of developing heart disease and experienced fewer cardiac events than those with lower HRV.

Better Emotional and Mental Wellbeing: Higher HRV is linked to improved mood and emotional well-being. It correlates with greater psychological flexibility and lower incidences of depression and anxiety. In practical terms, this means individuals with higher HRV are generally better at regulating their emotions, which is beneficial in both personal relationships and professional settings where emotional intelligence is crucial.

Enhanced Physical Performance: Athletes often use HRV to gauge their recovery status and readiness for training. Higher HRV indicates that the body is well-rested and has recovered from previous exertions, making it an ideal state for physical training. Coaches and sports scientists monitor athletes’ HRV to tailor training programs that optimize performance while minimizing the risk of injury.

Greater Overall Longevity: Research indicates that higher HRV may be linked to increased lifespan. This is potentially due to the association of high HRV with better overall physiological resilience and fewer health problems. For example, in community-dwelling populations, those with higher HRV have been shown to have a lower mortality rate from all causes, as detailed in research published by the American Journal of Cardiology.

These are just a handful of the key benefits to illustrate why increasing HRV is a valuable goal for anyone interested in enhancing their health, resilience, and quality of life. Whether through targeted exercises, improved sleep patterns, stress management techniques, or dietary changes, boosting HRV can provide a significant health advantage across multiple aspects of life.

Which lifestyle interventions will increase my HRV the most?

Improving HRV can be achieved through various lifestyle interventions that enhance autonomic nervous system function. Regular physical exercise is one of the most effective methods; cardiovascular activities like running, swimming, and cycling, particularly when performed at moderate intensity, have been shown to boost HRV by improving heart health and reducing stress.

Diet also plays a crucial role. Consuming a balanced diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants, and fiber can improve heart health and HRV. A study published in the Journal of Nutrition highlighted that omega-3 supplements significantly enhance HRV by reducing inflammation and improving autonomic balance.

Additionally, mindfulness practices such as yoga and meditation have been shown to increase HRV by promoting relaxation and reducing sympathetic nervous system activity, according to the International Journal of Yoga.

Regular, restorative sleep is another critical factor; ensuring sufficient sleep each night helps to restore the body’s natural rhythms and support higher HRV. Managing stress through relaxation techniques and structured relaxation practices can further improve HRV, contributing to better overall health and resilience.

How does my sleep affect my heart rate variability?

Sleep plays a profound role in regulating heart rate variability. During sleep, especially in the deep stages, the body enhances its parasympathetic (rest and digest) activity, which is crucial for high HRV. This increase in parasympathetic activity during sleep helps to lower the heart rate and increase HRV, indicating good cardiovascular and autonomic health.

Research in the Sleep Medicine Reviews journal suggests that disruptions in sleep architecture, such as those caused by sleep disorders like apnea or insomnia, can lead to significant decreases in HRV. This reduction is due to the stress response triggered by interrupted sleep, which increases sympathetic nervous system activity and reduces the restorative effects of the parasympathetic nervous system.

Therefore, ensuring consistent, high-quality sleep can directly enhance HRV by supporting the dominant activity of the parasympathetic nervous system overnight, helping the body recover and maintain a healthy balance between stress and rest.

Which lifestyle choices will lower my HRV?

Certain lifestyle choices can negatively impact HRV, indicating reduced autonomic nervous system efficiency and poor stress adaptation. High levels of sustained stress without adequate recovery are perhaps the most significant factor that can lower HRV. This is often seen in cases of chronic work stress or personal anxiety, where the sympathetic nervous system is constantly activated, leading to reduced variability.

Poor dietary habits can also contribute to lower HRV. High consumption of processed foods, excessive caffeine, and sugar can lead to inflammation and metabolic imbalances, which in turn can affect heart rate variability. Alcohol consumption is another key factor; while moderate alcohol use might not significantly impact HRV, excessive drinking can severely impair it, according to research published in the Alcohol and Alcoholism journal.

Lack of physical activity is another critical factor. Sedentary lifestyles lead to deteriorating cardiovascular health, which can lower HRV over time. Similarly, overtraining without adequate recovery in athletes can lead to a decrease in HRV due to physical stress and insufficient recovery time.

Why does drinking alcohol lower my HRV?

Alcohol consumption has a complex relationship with heart rate variability (HRV).

In moderation, alcohol may have a transient beneficial effect on HRV, potentially increasing it slightly by enhancing parasympathetic activity. However, excessive alcohol intake, especially over the long term, tends to decrease HRV significantly, indicating impaired autonomic function and reduced resilience to stress.

Chronic heavy drinking leads to a host of cardiovascular problems, including increased heart rate, hypertension, and irregular heartbeat, all of which are reflected in reduced HRV. A study published in Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research demonstrated that heavy drinkers consistently show lower HRV compared to light or non-drinkers, which points to the detrimental effects of alcohol on the autonomic nervous system and overall cardiovascular health. This reduction in HRV is particularly concerning as it increases the risk of sudden cardiac events and other heart-related issues.

Will breathwork, meditation or yoga increase my heart rate variability?

Absolutely. These strategies are highly effective in enhancing HRV by stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system, the part of the autonomic nervous system responsible for relaxation and recovery. Practices such as diaphragmatic breathing, slow abdominal breathing, and various forms of meditative practices like mindfulness or transcendental meditation help to reduce stress, which in turn allows the heart rate to vary more freely and increases HRV.

Regular engagement with these practices increases HRV and improves the body’s stress response, according to research published in the International Journal of Cardiology, and a routine of daily meditation has been shown to increase HRV and lower blood pressure, thereby enhancing both mental and physical health.

These techniques prove particularly beneficial for people in high-stress professions as they promote a quicker recovery from stress and improve overall well-being.

How do different types of cardio or aerobic training influence HRV?

Cardiovascular or aerobic training can significantly influence HRV, generally increasing it over time through improved heart fitness and autonomic balance. The type of exercise, its intensity, frequency, and duration can all affect the outcomes on HRV. For instance, Zone 2 cardio exercise or steady-state training, such as jogging, cycling, or swimming, at a moderate intensity are particularly effective at enhancing HRV by bolstering parasympathetic tone and improving cardiac efficiency.

Interval training, which alternates short bursts of intense activity with periods of rest or lower intensity exercise, has also been shown to effectively increase HRV. Subjects who engaged in regular interval training showed marked improvements in HRV, indicating enhanced cardiac autonomic modulation and resilience to stress, according to research published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research.

How can my heart rate variability be used to improve my athletic performance?

HRV is a powerful tool if you want to optimise your athletic performance and recovery. By monitoring HRV, you can get insights into your body’s readiness to perform and its recovery status. Higher HRV suggests that your body is well-rested and less stressed, indicating a good time to engage in high-intensity training or competition. Conversely, lower HRV suggests that your body is still recovering from previous exertions or might be under stress, signalling a need to focus on recovery practices instead of intense workouts.

For example, professional sports teams often use HRV to tailor training programmess for athletes to prevent overtraining and to peak at the right time for major competitions. This personalised approach ensures that athletes are not only performing at their best but also reduces the risk of injury and long-term fatigue. A study published in the Journal of Sports Sciences found that athletes who used HRV-guided training programmes improved their performance more consistently than those who followed a standard training plan.

Which technology is best for measuring heart rate variability accurately?

The technology for measuring HRV has advanced significantly, with various devices available ranging from clinical-grade equipment to consumer wearables.

The gold standard for accurate HRV measurement is still the electrocardiogram (ECG), which records the electrical signals of the heart and provides precise inter-beat interval data. For research and clinical settings, ECGs offer the most reliable HRV measurements.

However, for everyday use, high-quality heart rate monitors and smartwatches equipped with photoplethysmography (PPG) sensors are increasingly popular. Brands including Polar, Garmin, Whoop, Apple Watch and Fitbit offer devices that provide reasonably accurate HRV readings suitable for non-clinical purposes. These wearables are beneficial for ongoing monitoring, allowing users to track their HRV in real-time and make informed decisions about their health and fitness routines.

How does age impact heart rate variability?

Age has a significant influence on heart rate variability (HRV), with HRV typically decreasing as individuals grow older. This decline is largely due to the natural aging process of the cardiovascular system and the gradual reduction in physiological resilience. The autonomic nervous system, which regulates heart rate variability, becomes less responsive with age, meaning the body’s ability to modulate heart rate quickly in response to stress or physical demands diminishes.

Research published in the Journal of Geriatric Cardiology showed that this reduction in HRV can begin as early as the mid-20s and continues progressively. The decrease in HRV with age is associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular diseases and a higher overall mortality rate. Understanding these changes can help older adults adjust their lifestyle to maintain as high an HRV as possible, through regular physical activity, stress management, and a healthy diet, which can mitigate some effects of aging on the cardiovascular system.

Will improving my HRV help me live a longer?

Improving your HRV has the potential to extend both your lifespan and quality of life. A higher HRV indicates better autonomic nervous system function and, typically, better cardiovascular and overall health. Studies, like those cited by the American Heart Association, suggest that higher HRV is associated with a reduced risk of sudden cardiac death and other mortality causes, implying that HRV could be a marker for longevity.

Moreover, by managing stress more effectively and maintaining a healthier cardiovascular system, individuals with higher HRV often enjoy a better quality of life. They are less likely to suffer from diseases associated with low HRV, such as hypertension and heart disease, and they generally report higher levels of energy and wellbeing.

Therefore, focusing on improving HRV through lifestyle choices that enhance autonomic health – including regular and varied exercise, good nutrition, stress management, and adequate sleep, rest and recovery – could help you live a longer and healthier life.

Leave a comment

Sign Up to Our Newsletter

Be the first to know the latest updates

[yikes-mailchimp form="1"]