Is Heart Rate Variability the best new tool for Smart Aging?
Could heart rate variability (HRV) be the easiest biomarker to manage our health as we age? At 64, I have been tracking my HRV for over two years. This easy-to-use tool has enabled me to monitor and take control of my health and fitness. This image shows that my HRV matches the 30-39 year-old demographic.
We are all accustomed to measuring biomarkers even if we haven’t thought of them as such. Temperature is the most basic of biomarkers, and COVID has taken this biomarker to a whole new level of importance.
Our physician tests us or orders tests to measure a range of biomarkers. Pulse, blood pressure, cholesterol, triglycerides, white cell count are all examples of biomarkers revealing our state of health or stress, inflammation and disease.
As important as these measures are, some require a physician to order and interpret them. Also, healthcare budgets may not permit testing as often as we would like to track our self-improvement projects. (see “Our Story” page)
In recent times heart rate variability has been promoted as a single biomarker to take our overall health’s ‘pulse’. Imagine a tool that can monitor our state of health and fitness with or without our physician overseeing and guiding.
Over the past decade, we have seen an explosion in HRV research. Over 20,000 research publications provide a wealth of information on a range of topics. Studies include the impact of athletic performance, chronic disease, psychological and cognitive health, nutrition, and even aging on HRV.
HRV is an easily trackable, but complex biomarker and measures more than heart health. It is proving to be a new non-invasive way to track wellbeing, health, fitness, resilience and even aging.
Imagine one single measure in our hot little hands, allowing us to track and take control of our health. Game on!
Heart rate and HRV: what is the difference?
In an age of machinery, we have come to think of variability as randomity or chaos.
However, the heart is not a metronome beating faultlessly in time. The more your heart jumps around (to an extent, of course), the readier you are for action.
In a human system, variability is a positive characteristic. The body has processes to handle the variability – to maintain an equilibrium between fight, flight or freeze and rest, digest or breed.
Leading cardiologist John P. Higgins MD, MBA, a sports cardiologist at McGovern Medical School explains…
‘HRV differs from heart rate. Heart rate measures the number of times a heart beats per minute.’
‘Heart rate variability is the variation in the time between each heartbeat.’
‘Unlike your heart rate, which is calculated by counting your pulse, heart rate variability is measured at the doctor’s office with an ECG/EKG test that records the electrical activity of your heart.’
‘HRV is a very good measure of the efficiency and performance of your cardiovascular system.’
‘In general, a high HRV is associated with improved body system functioning and thus improved athletic performance.’
‘Studies suggest that people who have a higher HRV are healthier and live longer with less risk of disease. A lower HRV is associated with heart attacks, strokes, and diabetes.’
So, there we have it straight from the expert.
How does HRV work?
Generally, HRV is a measure of our autonomic nervous system (ANS). If our body is under stress, it moves into fight, flight or freeze (sympathetic nervous system). If relaxed, it moves into rest, digest or breed (parasympathetic nervous system). The ANS is the moderator between these two branches and seeks to return the body to equilibrium or homeostasis.
Stress fires up the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) to respond to whatever is coming at us.
Work, commuting, relationships or financial hardship are commonly thought of as the leading causes of our stress.
Yet, the food we consume can create digestive stress or inflammation. Alcohol or drugs could cause heart stress. The environment also delivers stress in the form of pollution, weather, noise or natural disasters, to name a few.
The keys to managing stress are first to understand what stress is. Second, determine what stressors impact you individually. Then, find a way to measure your response to stress. Finally, know how to improve your ability to deal with stress, also known as resilience.
The body has an inherent ability to balance the autonomic nervous system (ANS), to return us to equilibrium if we listen to it and act accordingly.
HRV is the new way to track wellbeing.
What are the benefits of tracking HRV?
Researchers discovered that increased HRV correlates with increased self-control abilities, greater social skills, and an increased ability to cope with stress, among other findings. Thus, the applications extend way beyond critical medical or elite athlete application.
HRV is also a compelling marker for resilience. In the current COVID climate, our ability to adapt is what will get us through. Adaptability builds resilience.
On the other hand, low heart rate variability (HRV) correlates with a higher risk of death in patients with heart disease or elderly subjects as well as a higher incidence of coronary heart disease (CHD) in the general population.
So, HRV tracking is a non-invasive way to measure stress. Every one of us can easily monitor our lifestyle and play an active role in our health, wellness and quality of life.
A bit of history…
HRV has been around for over 200 years. The Rev. Stephen Hales (1733) was the first to note that pulse varied with respiration.
The ECG arrived in 1895 to electrically measure heart activity.
The 1960s saw the release of the Holter monitor, to record cardiac activity based on ECG technology. Electrodes, attached to the patient’s chest, record heart electrical activity. Only used in hospitals at first, they have evolved from 30-pound devices to a fraction of a pound today.
The Holter monitor and its 24-hour measurement remain the gold standard for HRV. Despite that, wearable technology has brought this capability within reach of anyone with a smartphone.
Elite athletes were the first to jump on board this new technology. It provides a wealth of information to help them train more effectively and recover quickly.
A 2018 study found that competitive cyclists performed better when they planned workouts around HRV readings rather than relying on traditional training programs.
That brings us to you and me. Can we use this technology to monitor and improve our health, fitness and longevity?
You bet we can….
How to measure? You will need:
- A Monitor: I recommend the Elite HRV finger monitor ‘Corsense’
- The Elite HRV App: My favourite app. Their latest upgrade has improved the app significantly.
- Take a reading daily at the same time, preferably first thing in the morning before you get out of bed. You need to remain completely still. I take a 5-minute measurement, even though some suggest 1 minute or two is enough.
Record as often as possible to establish a baseline. My baseline comes from an 800-day measurement streak.
- Record other biomarkers as tags: exercise, sleep, mood, energy level, soreness level, weight or even blood glucose in the app. I record all my stats on a spreadsheet so I can graph the data to see trends over time.
- Use the daily reading or the trend to prioritise your day or week. Can I push myself today or do I need some downtime, e.g. yoga or meditation?
- Create projects to improve your HRV and test against one reading or a trend.
I have tested HRV against exercise, nutrition, supplements, yoga, meditation and alcohol, to name a few. I will report the findings (n=1) in other posts
How to interpret the data?
The essential stats from any monitor/app combination are:
HRV: This statistic can vary across different apps. Each company selling an HRV app uses raw ECG/EKG heart activity data (RMSSD) to construct this figure according to its unique algorithm. So, you should not compare your HRV score with a person using a different app.
RMSSD: This is the raw figure generally used to calculate the HRV score. Therefore, it is comparable across apps and demographic populations.
According to the European Society of Cardiology, RMSSD is considered the most relevant and accurate measure of Autonomic Nervous System activity over the short-term.
LN(RMSSD): This is the logarithm of the RMSSD but essentially is the same thing in a different format.
SDNN: This statistic is calculated during 5-minute periods but is generally used for readings over 5 minutes. It is, however, most accurate in 24-hour Holter monitor reading.
Take care not to compare your 5-minute reading SDNN figure to those generated by 24-hour Holter monitor generated figures. They can vary appreciably.
An HRV app generates other statistics as well, but if you start with the basics, you can build up your knowledge as you go.
Apart from comparing yourself to people your age and fitness levels, it’s best to compare yourself with yourself over time. Are you improving the number or not?
That’s the name of the game – to be your best self.
I initially discovered HRV from HeartMath. I started using their biofeedback device to create heart-brain synchronicity which improves overall HRV.
However, I wanted to see my raw HRV figure, and this didn’t give it to me.
I found an app that allowed me to measure my HRV by placing my finger over the smartphone camera and taking a reading. You have to stay extremely still to get any sort of accuracy. I decided to purchase their finger sensor and started recording my readings. Not entirely satisfied, I found the app too difficult to understand.
Then I found a course on HRV by Elite Academy. Module 1 opened my eyes to what stress actually was! The course was easy to follow, well-structured for a beginner and extremely informative.
I immediately loaded the Elite HRV app and purchased a Polar Chest strap (pre-Corsense days). I have measured and tracked my HRV every day since – over 800 days.
I have been able to improve my HRV to a point where my numbers match the averages for the demographic 30 years younger than me!
So, this is why I measure my HRV at my age. I can see daily readings to help prioritise my day and trends to monitor my longer-term projects. I can make subtle changes way before my physician picks up a problem.
Join our growing band of Smart Agers – a community of people who see themselves at 100+, fit and healthy and making a difference in the world. We use technology to improve longevity and make every damn day count!
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