What is HRV?

Heart rate variability, although has been around for number of years, has recently been at the forefront of psycho-physiological research. Researchers and physiologists have been tracking and utilising HRV for decades because it’s a useful indicator of several health-related issues, but only lately has it grabbed the attention of athletes, coaches, biohackers and the general public.

It can be used as a method to assess our ability to respond to stress, which can provide therapists, stress management consultants and many more, to work in new ways with people. This allows for optimised performance, using much more objective feedback techniques than have previously been available. Let's take a look into HRV in more detail.

Our heart rate is usually measured as a number of beats per minute. It increases with exercise and decreases when you are in a relaxed state. If we look more closely, the heart rate changes from beat to beat (see below). Breathing in tends to speed up the heart rate, whilst breathing out slows it down. This means we are best looking at heart rate as a range over time, rather than a static, fixed number.

Measurement of response

Heart rate variability is a measurement of this response. Throughout our lives, our heart continually adapts to a number of signals, in order to provide an optimum experience which is adaptive to our surroundings.

One major system influencing this is our ability to both detect a threat and to feel safe. This operates primarily through our nervous system (which connects our brain to our heart, lungs, and other organs).

Autonomic nervous system

One of the major systems that influences our heart is the autonomic nervous system.

Our thoughts, emotions and behaviour are intimately connected with the operation of this system. The more flexible we are, the more capable we are of dealing with life's inevitable stressors. This flexibility is reflected in our nervous system and can be measured using HRV, as an indicator. What is fascinating is that it has now been identified that negative thoughts can have an impact on our autonomic nervous system, which can lead to a reduced HRV if habitual.
 

Habits are often developed as a way of handling complexity. As well as externally observed behavioural patterns, we also develop internal ones related to our cognitive and emotional experience. These are then processed by the autonomic nervous system.

Technology

The current rapid developments in technology, such as those which are fitness-focused, are allowing us to regularly monitor physiological processes, i.e. Apple watch 

The reduced cost of these technologies, along with increased processing power and ongoing innovations means that we can now interact in previously inconceivable ways. Take a look at this screenshot from HeartMath which allows us to work constructively on improving your response to stress and build resilience. Heartmath have provided a wealth of research providing evidence for the use of HRV biofeedback and improvements in both psychological and physiological health. 
 

It is now possible to train, manage and improve our heart rate variability, which has become particularly common in performance sports such as football, rugby and running. It has been shown that there are several ways we can influence our physiology to increase our heart rate variability. Therefore allowing us to move into a more coherent state.

Good heart rate variability

Good heart rate variability is where we reach a state of optimum balance, and it is often referred to as 'coherence'. There has recently been considerable scientific research which shows that it is connected to positive physical and psychological health.

Being in a state of coherence is often referred to as FLOW, and it is where you are in a state of optimum performance and experience.

The future is certainly bright when it comes to HRV, and as the science keeps emerging it will be interesting to see how we can continue to adapt and respond to stressful situations in life.

A healthy heart beat contains healthy irregularities. Even if your heart rate is, for example, 60 beats per minute, that doesn’t mean that your heart beats once every second – or at one-second intervals like a clock.

Rather, there is variation amongst the intervals between your heartbeats. The interval between your successive heartbeats can be, for example, 828 milliseconds between one R-R interval and 845 milliseconds in the successive R-R internal.

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