What is HRV? 9 Ways to Improve This Crucial Well-Being Metric

For the past two years I have become obsessed with keeping track of my health statistics. The key, of course, is maintaining a close relationship with my fitness band. My HRV score is the first thing I check in the morning. Yes – for the gram, before I drink some H20, and really, before I even roll out of bed. But if you’re wondering ‘what is HRV’, don’t worry, you’re not alone.

In short, it gives me an overview of what I can and cannot do that day. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve Googled what-is-HRV rabbit hole. But after a lot of research, and having fun again with my fitness tracker, I finally *get it — and I can’t wait to share it.

Feature image by Riley Reed.

A quick overview of HRV

Essentially, your HRV score is a quick and accurate way to understand how much your body can handle stress or how much stress it has been under in any given day. I like to think of HRV as similar to reading my own personal gas tank gauge. Sure, I know it seems a little crazy to transfer so many of my decisions to technology, but paying attention to your daily HRV score can actually improve the connection you have with your body.

If my day is flexible, my HRV score will determine how hard I train, whether I drink alcohol, and how early I have to go to bed. This exercise has really improved my life in more ways than one – and I’m just getting started. After all, a life without stress is not possible, so building resilience to stress is our only option to achieve optimal health.

Today I’m sharing more about what HRV is on a practical level, how to improve your HRV score, and the link between HRV and your autonomic nervous system. Without further ado, let’s dive into all things HRV.

What is HRV?

Let’s start with the heart of the matter. HRV (Heart Rate Variability) is simply the measure of the variation between your heartbeats. Your heart rate may be 60 BPM, but your heart probably isn’t beating every second. One heart rate may be 0.06 seconds while the other is 1.2 seconds. This variation is unconsciously controlled by our Autonomic Nervous System. (More on this later.)

What can HRV tell you?

OK, so you’ve got a new acronym under your belt, but you’re probably thinking – let’s get to the good part. We know what HRV is, but why is it important? It turns out that people with a high HRV score have a “healthier” and more responsive nervous system. These people are more likely to have a longer lifespan, better cardiovascular fitness and better ability to cope with stress.

If you have a high HRV, it means your autonomic nervous system (ANS) can quickly switch between sympathetic mode, also known as “fight or flight,” and parasympathetic mode (your “rest-and-digest” system). A low HRV means you can’t switch between these two modes as easily and your body stays in a state of stress for far too long.

With that in mind, it’s important to know that the goal is not to be so calm that others ask you if you were a monk in a past life. Instead, you want to be able to recover from stressful moments as quickly and efficiently as possible, without harming yourself or others, of course.

What are the benefits of a balanced nervous system?

If you’ve been nibbling at improving your HRV and turning your nervous system into your superpower, know this: You’re not alone. Olympic athletes and top CEOs all work with HRV coaches to gain an edge over their competitors. There are even companies that monitor their employees’ HRV to prevent burnout and maximize the health of their team. To gain more insight, I asked Laura Larios, a High-Performance Nervous System Coach, how her coaching makes a difference to her leaders.

“Our nervous systems mirror each other. The state of your system literally affects everyone around you. The more regulated and resilient you are to stress, the more you can hold onto that stress so that it doesn’t go to your team and trigger a survival response in them as well.’

How do I improve my HRV score?

Good news: You can improve your HRV and learn to better regulate your nervous system. I’ve used a variety of devices over the years and recently discovered the HRV 4 Training app, which has quickly become a favorite. The app was developed by Marco Altini, one of Oura ring’s key data scientists. During a conversation with Daniel Rowland, a coach who works on Marco’s team, I learned that there are two ways to improve your HRV score: aerobic training and HRV biofeedback training.

Because aerobic training is relatively self-explanatory and easy to perform, let’s take a closer look at what HRV biofeedback training is all about.

“The first step to improving your HRV is finding your resonance respiratory rate,” notes Rowland. (Don’t worry — there’s an app for that.) “If we spend time inhaling our specific resonance respiratory rate, we enter the parasympathetic state.” We rest. We digest. We develop resistance to stress. To repeat.

While Rowland has been a long-time user and fan of the HRV 4 Training app, he doesn’t provide the Kool-Aid. “There are many other activities that can improve HRV and put us in the parasympathetic state, such as walking in nature or transcendental meditation.”

He also noted that HRV training is not a quick fix and you shouldn’t expect overnight changes. It will take time and constant effort to rewire your nervous system so that it is truly stress resistant. But change, he stresses, and improving your HRV are both certainly possible.

How can I track my HRV score?

There are countless ways to keep track of your HRV score. The Polar Chest Strap, WHOOP Strap, and Oura Ring are the most accurate and popular choices on the market today. But if you don’t like the price, dedication, or even the aesthetics of these devices, don’t worry. These days, you can get a pretty accurate HRV reading through an app and camera on your smartphone.

Grab your smartphone as soon as you wake up and record your HRV. After four days of recording, you will discover your personal HRV baseline and be able to understand your HRV scores going forward.

What is a good HRV rate?

As with resting heart rate, there are normal HRV ranges based on age and gender. But since HRV is largely genetic and changes slowly over time, it’s important to think about this number in relation to your baseline. In general, the higher the HRV, the better. But comparing your HRV to athletes, siblings, or friends isn’t helpful if we’re trying to tune in to our own nervous system.

Should I be concerned about low HRV?

Short answer: no. HRV is largely genetic, and the most important thing to keep in mind is how your daily HRV score compares to your baseline. For example, if your HRV is usually around 60 and you wake up one day and your HRV is 30, it’s time to pause and think. A low HRV usually means your body is not recovering from the previous day’s stress. If you have chronically low HRV, it could mean you are experiencing chronic sympathetic activation, aka burnout.

What does HRV measure on the Oura Ring?

HRV is not a new measure. Scientists have been tracking and studying this number for the past 60 years. But instead of clunky and expensive equipment, they use devices such as the aforementioned Oura ring, Apple Watch and the Whoop band. As a result, average individuals can use HRV to improve their well-being. While these devices are major technological advances, some argue that they still have a long way to go.

How can you use HRV?

We all understand that we need rest to do our best. But sometimes I don’t know if I really need to rest, or if I’m just feeling lazy. Someone else? These devices, especially HRV tracking, have helped me make small, but consistent progress toward my goals. And most importantly, I was able to do it without feeling burnt out.

I can now look at my HRV score and clearly understand what my body is trying to tell me. In addition, I am attuned to the recovery and needs of my body. Sometimes my body will say, “Nihel, you really need to slow down and rest tonight. Cancel your plans, stretch instead of sweating and swap that cocktail for some chamomile tea.

But other days it will tell me to go after that adventure. Add that extra project. Go wild – you are unstoppable.


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