If you’ve ever taken your pulse, you may feel like your heart is beating at a steady rate. However, the timing between your heartbeats is not consistent. The fluctuation between heartbeat times is called heart rate variability or HRV. Measuring HRV can provide information about your overall health.
This article discusses how to measure and interpret HRV and what it means.
What is heart rate?
Heart rate is how fast your heart beats. You can feel your heartbeat by measuring your pulse on the side of your neck or the thumb side of your wrist. Count the number of heartbeats in 60 seconds to determine your heart rate.
How to measure HRV?
Heart rate variability is most accurately measured using an electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG) – a test that provides a picture of the heartbeat through electrodes placed on the chest, arms and legs. These electrodes sense the electrical signals in the heart that cause the heart to beat.
An electrocardiogram measures various electrical signals to determine how fast your heart beats, and the time between heartbeats. HRV is also known as the RR interval. The “R” phase of the heartbeat is the spike in the ECG pattern.
To get a more accurate picture of your baseline HRV, you need to monitor it 24 hours a day. HRV is influenced by stress levels, sleep patterns, and changes in mood and activity throughout the day. Heart rate variability is usually recorded in seconds or milliseconds, depending on your measurement equipment.
heart rate measurement at home
It’s a little more challenging, but technology is advancing. Your HRV can be monitored by wearing a chest strap that uses electrodes. The technology is also incorporated into smartwatches and accompanying apps.
How do I interpret HRV information?
Heart rate variability is the result of your autonomic nervous system (ANS) activity. ANS controls your heartbeat, breathing and digestion. Two parts of the ANS affect your heart rate – the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system, which are:
- The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is responsible for your fight-or-flight response. You may notice an increase in your heart rate (as you breathe) when you feel restless or scared. This helps deliver blood to the muscles in your arms and legs so you can deal with potential hazards.
- The Parasympathetic Nervous System (PSNS) is sometimes referred to as the “rest and digest” system. When this part of ANS is activated, your heart rate will slow down. More blood goes to your internal organs for digestion than to muscles in other parts of your body.
What you need to know about the nervous system
What should my HRV be?
In general, the normal resting heart rate for adults is 60 to 100 beats per minute. A person with a resting heart rate of 60 beats per minute has an average HRV of one second, but actual HRV values may fluctuate more.
Heart rate variability is different from heart rate – there is no specific “normal” range that applies to everyone. What is normal for one person may not be normal for you. Wearing the tracking device for several weeks can help you determine your baseline HRV measurement.
Why is HRV important?
A high HRV may indicate that your body is adapting well to environmental changes and varying levels of stress. Higher HRV measurements are also expected when your heart rate increases during physical activity such as running. However, a higher HRV can also be a sign of certain diseases, such as atrial fibrillation (AFib, an abnormal heart rhythm).
On the other hand, if you’re chronically stressed or dealing with depression, your HRV may be lower. A low HRV may also indicate a higher risk of heart problems such as heart attack, congestive heart failure (the heart doesn’t pump blood efficiently enough), or coronary heart disease (the arteries don’t deliver enough oxygen-rich blood to the heart).
Factors Affecting HRV
There are many factors that can affect a person’s heart rate variability, including:
- Lifestyle factors: Stress, poor diet, sedentary and unhealthy diet can negatively impact HRV. Making positive lifestyle changes in these areas can improve your HRV.
- Inflammation: HRV may be negatively affected by higher levels of inflammation in the body. Inflammation is associated with a variety of causes and conditions.
- Medications: The presence of other medical conditions, such as anxiety, asthma, depression, heart disease, and diabetes, can affect HRV.
- Age: Young children have a higher normal heart rate, which can lead to a higher HRV. HRV naturally decreases as a person ages.
- Medications: HRV may be affected by medications that regulate the heart, such as beta-blockers.
How to Improve Heart Rate Variability
If you want to improve HRV, try these tips to reduce overall stress and improve your health:
- practice meditation
- Start a Gratitude Journal
- exercise regularly
- breathe deeply and slowly
- spend time in the sun
- Eat more whole foods
- listen to music
- Spend time with friends and family
- Avoid smoking and excessive drinking
- get enough sleep
How to Reduce Stress: Tips and More
Heart rate variability (HRV) is a measure of the time between heartbeats. Normal HRV varies from person to person, and levels naturally decrease with age. Lower HRV is often associated with higher stress levels and the presence of other diseases, but higher values are not always better.
The most accurate way to measure HRV is with an electrocardiogram, but it can also be assessed with home monitors, including chest straps and smart watches. Tracking your HRV for several weeks can help you determine your baseline.
Heart rate variability is just one piece of data that can provide information about your overall health. While there are many home tools for measuring the pulse, the accuracy of this measurement can only be ensured through medical testing. Consult your healthcare provider if you have concerns about HRV.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is HRV high or low?
Normal HRV varies from person to person. In general, lower HRV measurements were associated with poorer overall health.
What are the reasons for a low HRV?
Chronic stress and other medical conditions, such as heart disease and diabetes, are often associated with low HRV.
How long does it take to improve HRV?
HRV measurements fluctuate based on your environment and activity level. Durable improvements in HRV may take weeks or more to achieve.