Understanding Heart Rate Variability (HRV): What It Is, Why It’s Important, and How to Improve It

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Maybe you’ve heard the term Heart Rate Variability (HRV), but do you know what it means in terms of your health? It’s not something most people paid attention to until smartwatches made it easier to track. It turns out HRV is an important metric not just for heart health, but for overall well-being. Whether you’re an athlete, aspiring athlete, or a regular person interested in maintaining good health, understanding HRV can be very helpful in assessing the big picture.

What is HRV and Why is it Important?

Unlike heart rate, which counts the number of heartbeats per minute, HRV measures the variability in timing between each heartbeat. Your heart doesn’t beat at the same pace continuously like a metronome; it’s alive and intimately connected to your autonomic nervous system (ANS). Your sympathetic (fight or flight) and parasympathetic (rest and digest) branches ebb and flow all the time to keep you animated, engaged, and alive. Even as you breathe, your heart adjusts by speeding up with your inhale and slowing down with your exhale.

A higher HRV means your heart is responsive and adaptable, suggesting a robust ANS. It indicates your heart is sensitive to changes, adjusting its beat slightly faster or slower based on internal and external signals. A lower HRV, with less variability between beats, typically indicates reduced PNS activity. This may occur when your body is stressed, fatigued, or if you’re struggling with health issues (short- or long-term). A low HRV means your heart is less responsive.

For athletes, HRV is a valuable tool for optimizing training. Monitoring HRV helps you see how well your body recovers from workouts and whether you may need more recovery time or need to train smarter. It may also predict overall health. A consistently low HRV could suggest more serious issues or cardiovascular problems. At the very least, it indicates your body feels stressed. (Keep in mind, an irregular or erratic heart rate is different from a high HRV, which reflects variability in the timing between beats, not irregularity.)

Factors Affecting HRV

Many factors impact HRV, including age, fitness levels, stress levels, sleep, diet, and lifestyle. Just as many health issues can be improved with lifestyle changes, HRV and cardiovascular health are no different.

How to Improve HRV

Improving HRV involves doing everything you’ve learned to not only optimize cardiovascular health, but health in general. Exercise, sleep, and diet all matter, but if you struggle with chronic stress, it’ll impact your mind, body and physiology.   Consider how stress affects your breathing,  muscles, and  mood.  Skills like time management, work-life balance, and maintaining healthy relationships (and dropping toxic ones) all matter in regulating your nervous system and limiting stress. Certain types of breath work that help to calm or regulate the nervous system can be very helpful in improving HRV.  And activities like yoga, meditation, gardening, or anything you enjoy that makes you feel calm or at peace should be embraced as part of your wellness regimen.

Monitoring HRV

I’ve recently started using a smartwatch, and I love it. It makes it easier to monitor not only HRV but also other health metrics like sleep quality. To get a reading of your HRV, you’ll have to sleep with your watch on a few nights a week. For those without a smartwatch, you can still track heart rate variations over a few minutes and get a rough estimate of HRV. To do this, measure your resting heart rate multiple times over several minutes and note the fluctuations. Consistent minor variations in heart rate typically indicate a healthy HRV. 

For those interested, here are ideal HRV ranges by age (you’ll need the actual number from a device):

  • Children and adolescents: 70–140 ms
  • Young adults (20–30 years): 60–120 ms
  • Middle-aged adults: 50–100 ms
  • Older adults (60+ years): 40–90 ms

Summary

HRV is a valuable metric for understanding your body’s response to stress, recovery status, and overall health. By keeping track of your HRV, you may identify patterns (such as when I don’t sleep well, I don’t feel well, and this is reflected in a low HRV) and make the necessary adjustments to your lifestyle to ensure your heart remains healthy and resilient so you feel healthy and resilient as well. 

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