Tracking Heart Health: How Smartwatches and Simple Practices Improve HRV and Fitness

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My husband gave me a smartwatch for my birthday. I resisted getting one for a long time. “The last thing I want is something else to distract me,” I said. But after 4 weeks, I have to admit—it’s pretty cool!

I don’t text or answer calls on it, but I do use the fitness features. My smartwatch has helped me track my HRV, HRR, RR, and more. It’s motivated me to push myself and work smarter to improve my cardiovascular fitness.

If you’re wondering about these acronyms and what they mean, read on.

Understanding Heart Rate Variability (HRV)

You’ve probably heard of HRV. It’s frequently mentioned as a metric to consider for health and fitness. Heart Rate Variability (HRV) is the time between consecutive heartbeats. Unlike heart rate (HR), which is the number of beats per minute (BPM), HRV is measured in milliseconds and reflects the tiny changes in the intervals between heartbeats.

Your heart is controlled by your nervous system, constantly adjusting and changing according to the messages it receives about your internal and external environments. When relaxed, your heart beats more slowly, and HRV is typically higher. 

During stressful times or intense exercise, your heart rate increases, and the intervals between beats become smaller and more consistent, leading to lower HRV. Your heart should be responsive and adaptable — not tick mechanically like a clock. It’s alive, sensitive, and complex — just like you!

 

Regulatory Mechanisms

Your cardiovascular system communicates with your nervous, endocrine, and respiratory systems, causing your heart rate to ebb and flow according to the messages it receives. Heart Rate Variability (HRV) is an important measure of your heart’s sensitivity and resilience, indicating how well these systems are working to maintain equilibrium. If you’re physiologically stressed for any number of reasons, your Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) — the “rest and recover” or “rest and digest” part of your nervous system — may struggle to keep you balanced as your Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) dominates. This results in a lower HRV.

My watch monitors my HRV overnight. It’s more accurate to assess your HRV at the same time every day and when you’re relaxed. If your HRV trends downward over several weeks or months, you can evaluate why and determine what you need to do to restore balance.

One effective way to improve HRV and regulate your nervous system is through your breathing. Breathing has an immediate effect on your HRV. When you inhale, your heart rate speeds up. When you exhale, it slows down a little. This natural pattern is called Respiratory Sinus Arrhythmia (RSA). You don’t need to worry about the technical details of RSA or even remember the term. Just know that the rate at which you breathe (RR) impacts your heart rate and physiology. Slow, controlled, deep breathing has been an effective relaxation tool for centuries, and we now know it has an immediate impact on your heart and HRV.

Factors Affecting HRV

In addition to breathing, other factors impact HRV, including age, fitness level, overall health, and internal and external stressors. This is why you should consider your HRV as just one piece of a bigger picture. In some cases, having a high HRV may indicate a problem if your heartbeat is irregular. An irregular heartbeat or high HRV accompanied by symptoms like breathlessness or poor endurance may signal issues with your cardiovascular system and may warrant further evaluation.

Just like other metrics vary day to day, your HRV will reflect your state of mind and body on any given day. Factors such as lack of sleep, stress, and caffeine can affect the minutiae of your heartbeats. In general, a higher HRV is desirable and indicates a healthy heart, while a consistently lower HRV can suggest that your system is stressed, affecting your respiratory and cardiovascular health.

HRV and Technology

If you want to know your HRV “score” for the day, you can use a smartwatch or a fitness tracker. Devices may be the most accurate way to measure HRV. You can also get a general idea of your heart health by manually tracking your heart rate. For example, measure your resting heart rate several times over several minutes, preferably first thing in the morning, and note the changes and fluctuations. It should vary if only by a couple of beats each time you check.

For those interested, here are ideal HRV ranges by age (though data vary according to source):

  • 18-25 years: 62-85 ms
  • 26-35 years: 55-75 ms
  • 36-45 years: 50-70 ms
  • 46-55 years: 45-65 ms
  • 56-65 years: 42-62 ms
  • 66+ years: 40-60 ms

Heart Rate Recovery (HRR)

Another metric, and an easy one to assess, is Heart Rate Recovery (HRR). This indicates how quickly your heart rate returns to normal after exercise. To calculate HRR, engage in strenuous exercise, then measure your heart rate immediately after stopping and again one minute later. The difference between these two measurements is your HRR. A higher HRR indicates better cardiovascular fitness:

  • HRR over 30 bpm is excellent.
  • HRR between 20-30 bpm is very good.
  • HRR below 20 bpm may indicate lower fitness levels.

I do this one a lot. It’s easy to look down at your watch and see your heart rate during a workout. On my typical bike rides, I’ll rest at a viewpoint—a perfect opportunity to check my HRR. (Keep in mind, to be consistent, you’ll want to know your Maximum Target Heart Rate (MHR) and what percentage of that you’re in when you assess your HRR. For instance, 70-85% of MHR is considered strenuous exercise.) Calculating your HRR is a quick and easy way to get a general idea of your heart’s resilience. If your recovery scores are consistently low (18 or lower), you may need to work harder or smarter to improve your cardiovascular fitness and optimize your heart and respiratory health.

Summary

Heart Rate Variability (HRV) and Heart Rate Recovery (HRR) are valuable indicators of cardiovascular health and fitness, reflecting your body’s ability to handle stress and recover from exercise. All the other tenets of a healthy lifestyle, including restful sleep and a healthy diet, will help to keep your heart functioning optimally.

If you’re facing health challenges or just getting back into exercise, start small or work with a medical or fitness professional. You may find fitness apps helpful in tracking your progress and monitoring how your heart performs, but be smart about pushing yourself without medical guidance.

A smartwatch can be a helpful tool, but it’s not essential. You can learn a lot about your body’s balance and needs by paying attention to your body. Your heart and the quality of your breathing can tell you much about your inner state. Now, with technology, it’s just easier to monitor—and you’ll get objective data. All the stuff a geek like me loves.

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