Health-conscious people may track a wide variety of health indicators on a daily basis. You may track everything from your step count and heart rate to your oxygen saturation and blood sugar levels. Heart rate variability is a lesser-known data point that could give you a window into your overall health.
This article provides a helpful guide to heart rate variability and what it could tell you about your cardiovascular health.
What is Heart Rate Variability?
Your heart rate is a measure of the number of times your heart beats per minute. Heart rate variability is a more specialized data point. It measures the differences in time between your heartbeats.
Some variability in the heart’s rhythm is normal. A review published in Frontiers in Public Health noted that fluctuations of more than 100 milliseconds might be a sign of good health. These very small variations in the heart’s rhythm aren’t noticeable except with the right devices.
These normal fluctuations aren’t the same thing as a heart arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat). An arrhythmia is a heart rhythm issue that may be caused by problems with the electrical signals that control the heart.
How to Measure Heart Rate Variability
Healthcare providers may use an electrocardiogram machine (EKG) to measure heart rate variability. However, it’s also possible to track this measurement at home. The fitness device you wear on your wrist may be sensitive enough to pick up heart rate variability. If not, other options for tracking this measurement include a chest strap heart-rate monitor or a heart rate variability finger sensor.
What Impacts Heart Rate Variability?
Your heart rate changes depending on your body’s needs. You can feel this as you go about your day: When you’re lifting weights or hitting the treadmill, your heart beats faster. When you’re relaxing, it beats more slowly.
These automatic changes in your heart rate are driven by your autonomic nervous system. This system also controls your body’s other involuntary functions, such as breathing and digestion. There are two main branches of the autonomic nervous system:
- Sympathetic nervous system. Known as the “fight-or-flight” branch, the sympathetic nervous system manages increases in your heart rate, breathing rate, and blood pressure in stressful situations.
- Parasympathetic nervous system. As the “rest and digest” branch, the parasympathetic nervous system helps your body calm down. Once the perceived stress has passed, it reduces your heart rate, breathing rate, and blood pressure.
Is a Higher Heart Rate Variability Good for You?
The variability in your heart rate provides clues about how resilient your body is and how well you can adapt to different situations. Research suggests that having a higher heart rate variability is linked to many health benefits.
People with a greater heart rate variability have a lower lifetime risk of cardiovascular disease, concluded a study published in the Annals of Epidemiology. The researchers followed 9,744 men and women without baseline cardiovascular disease from 1987-1989 to 2013. Men with lower heart rate variability had a 4% higher lifetime risk of cardiovascular disease than men with higher heart rate variability. Women with lower heart rate variability had an 8% higher risk.
In people with cardiovascular disease, a higher heart rate variability may have a protective effect. A meta-analysis published in the Biological Research for Nursing found that having a lower heart rate variability was linked to a 46% higher risk of cardiovascular events. And compared to people with a higher HRV, those with a lower HRV had a 112% higher risk of all-cause death.
How to Improve Your Heart Rate Variability
There are many strategies that could help you improve your heart rate variability. A few to consider include getting regular exercise, reducing your stress levels, and enjoying refreshing cold baths.
It’s well-established that exercise can help improve both your overall health and the health of your heart. Research suggests that getting regular exercise could translate to improved heart rate variability, too. A review published in the Canadian Journal of Cardiology found that exercise training programs helped improve heart rate variability in people with certain cardiovascular conditions.
Manage Your Stress Levels
Stress may interfere with processes throughout the body, and heart rhythm is no exception, according to a recent review of the scientific literature. Several studies have found a connection between higher self-reported stress levels and lower heart rate variability. The connection between stress and heart rate variability is so strong that the fluctuations may be used to objectively measure stress levels.
Soak in Cold Water
Cold water immersion can help you relax and recover after a hard workout, and this habit may benefit your heart rate variability, too. A small study in the International Journal of Sports Medicine found that male volunteers who soaked in cold water after exercising had higher heart rate variability than those who did active or passive recovery. Ice Barrel has also published science on cold water immersion.
Try Cold Immersion at Home with Ice Barrel
Heart rate variability is a useful data point that could provide clues about the health of your cardiovascular system. Research has linked a higher heart rate variability to many health benefits, including a lower lifetime risk of cardiovascular disease. If you’re interested in the potential heart health benefits of cold water immersion, the Ice Barrel makes it easy to take a cold plunge at home. Just fill your Ice Barrel with water and ice and hop in!
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