Brenton Barker

What Is Heart Rate Variability? Explaining The Basics About HRV

Heart rate variability (HRV) is a reliable way to assess your autonomic nervous system. HRV helps to determine fitness levels and evaluate your body's capacity for performance.


As technology continues to advance, the capability to measure and monitor health-related data has become increasingly accessible.

From tracking body weight and blood pressure to logging steps, calories burned, and blood sugar levels, the possibilities for tracking health are almost endless. In addition to these commonly monitored metrics, researchers are now investigating the potential significance of heart rate variability (HRV) as an indicator of strength and overall health and fitness.

With this information, individuals can gain a deeper understanding of their overall health and make informed decisions about their wellness. Today we take a deep dive into the world of heart rate variability (HRV).

What is heart rate variability?

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), heart rate variability (HRV) refers to the natural fluctuation in time between consecutive heartbeats, which may vary by a fraction of a second.

This phenomenon is typically only detectable by specialised equipment, as the changes in heart rate are often too small to be noticed by the naked eye.

Although HRV is a normal occurrence in healthy individuals, it can sometimes suggest underlying health issues, such as heart conditions or mental health concerns like anxiety or depression. Therefore, it is important to monitor HRV and seek medical attention if any irregularities are detected.

Heart rate variability and the nervous system


The rate at which your heart beats is subject to various factors, such as the level of activity you engage in, your stress levels, and your age. Furthermore, it is worth noting that certain types of medications or medical devices may also have an impact on your heart rate.

It is important to understand that your heart is a complex organ that relies on other body systems to respond to changes in your environment and daily life. Heart rate variability (HRV) is a crucial aspect of the nervous system that arises from the parasympathetic and sympathetic branches.

Parasympathetic System: plays a vital role in regulating heart rate, controlling internal organ functions, and conserving energy.

Sympathetic System: increases heart rate and prepares the body for stress and exercise.

The autonomic nervous system coordinates both branches to maintain cardiovascular homeostasis, and HRV is the result of the fluctuation in heart rate caused by this coordinated effort. Understanding HRV can help us assess the health and functioning of the autonomic nervous system and support our overall well-being.

The connection between heart rate variability and fitness

According to studies conducted by the American Heart Association, HRV is a useful metric in assessing the state of one’s nervous system.

A high HRV indicates that both components of the nervous system, the sympathetic and the parasympathetic, are in balance and that the body is able to adapt to changes in the environment. This state is often associated with good health and a better ability to cope with stress.

On the other hand, a low HRV may indicate that the sympathetic branch is dominating, which can be useful during physical activity but may indicate fatigue, stress, or illness during rest. The less one component dominates, the more room there is for the other component to come in and take over, indicating fitness and readiness for performance.

Therefore, monitoring HRV can provide valuable insights into the state of one’s nervous system and overall health.

Measuring heart rate variability


Heart rate variability is a promising metric that can offer a noninvasive way to signal imbalances in the autonomic nervous system. HRV is the time difference between successive heartbeats, and it varies with respiration, blood pressure, and other physiological factors.

As researchers at Harvard have noted, many companies have launched apps and wearable heart rate monitors that can measure HRV, with chest strap monitors being more accurate than wrist devices. These apps and devices can help individuals track their HRV and identify changes that may indicate changes in their overall health.

HRV can provide personal feedback about lifestyle and motivate those wanting to live healthier lives. By tracking their HRV, individuals can understand how their body responds to different activities, environments, and stressors.

How to improve your HRV?

According to the Cleveland Clinic, if you want to enhance your HRV, there are several ways to do it. Some of these methods involve improving your physical health, while others focus on your mental well-being.

Here are some general tips to follow:

1Maintain physical well-being

Maintaining a regular exercise routine and adopting a healthy diet are essential to a healthy lifestyle. Not only do these habits positively impact your overall health, including your heart health, but they can also lead to improved variability.

By committing to a consistent exercise regimen and consuming a balanced diet filled with nutrient-rich foods, you can take control of your health and promote greater well-being.

2Take care of your mental health

Taking care of your mental health is essential, as it plays a crucial role in your HRV. Maintaining your stress level and practising effective stress management techniques can also significantly enhance your heart rate variability.

If you are dealing with mental health issues such as anxiety or depression, seeking proper treatment and managing these concerns can make a noticeable difference in your overall well-being.

Another effective technique to promote better HRV is referred to as biofeedback training. This method involves controlling your breathing to enhance your HRV. Research has also indicated that biofeedback training can be advantageous in reducing stress and anxiety levels.

Therefore, incorporating biofeedback training into your routine may be a beneficial step toward improving your overall well-being.

Sum it up

The precision, reliability, and overall practicality of tracking HRV are still questioned. While HRV has been linked to physical fitness, more research is needed to understand the correlation between changes in HRV and the functioning of the autonomic nervous system.

HRV can be used as another way to tap into the body and mind’s response to daily experiences, but it shouldn’t be relied on too heavily.

HRV is a valuable tool that can provide insight into the body’s health and well-being. By tracking HRV, individuals can better understand how their body responds to different stimuli and make informed decisions about their health and lifestyle.

Want to learn more?

In this informative TEDx Talk, you’ll learn a proven strategy for improving health, well-being, and performance from Inna Khazan, a clinical psychologist specialising in health psychology and performance. She teaches at Harvard Medical School, founded the Boston Center for Health Psychology and Biofeedback, and serves as Chief Science Officer for Optimal Heart Rate Variability.

Healthypedia FAQ

Understanding heart rate variability can be challenging, especially since it decreases with age and can vary from person to person. It's best to consult with your local healthcare provider to get a better understanding of your heart rate variability (HRV) and any necessary actions you may need to take.

A low heart rate variability (HRV) indicates a less variable time interval between heartbeats, which can suggest suboptimal functioning of the autonomic nervous system. However, what constitutes a "low" HRV varies based on age, gender, and overall health.

A high heart rate variability (HRV) is good as it shows adaptability and resilience to physical stress, like when you're working out. A low HRV may lead to both physical and mental health problems like heart disease, obesity, depression, and anxiety.

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