The tracking of heart rate variability (the time interval between consecutive heartbeats in milliseconds) provides a great tool for gaining insight into your body and a better understanding of your mental and physical state. This variation is modulated by the autonomic nervous system (ANS). If the ANS is in a fight-or-flight mode, the HRV tends to be lower and when it’s generally in the rest and digest mode, the HRV is usually higher. So, HRV is a reliable, noninvasive marker of the imbalance in the ANS. It is also an efficient indicator of managing workout intensities. With the help of reliable monitors and devices, tracking your heart rate variability (HRV) is a fairly simple feat. However, more often than not, people tend to make some rookie mistakes or fall prey to some common misconceptions when it comes to measuring HRV and interpreting the results.
What are these mistakes? How can they be avoided? Here’s all you need to know.
Heart Rate Variability (HRV) is related to how you breathe, your blood pressure, emotions and thoughts and your…
- A single HRV reading can’t tell you much. Instead, you want to focus on understanding the trend, or how your HRV has changed over time,
- A high HRV reading isn’t always a good thing, and a low estimate isn’t always a cause for concern,
- Other people’s HRV can’t tell you a whole lot about your own health. For that reason, the only person whose HRV matters is your own.
5 Lapses while measuring and interpreting HRV results
- Ignoring the HRV trend and focusing on the number
When it comes to measuring HRV, you should take the absolute reading with a grain of salt. A single HRV reading can’t likely tell you much. Instead, you should focus on understanding the trend, or how your HRV has changed over time.
To see trends, you first need to calculate your HRV baseline, which is just your average HRV over a standard week where your life is fairly normal and easy-going. Once you establish a baseline, then you can start comparing that to future readings.
There are two kinds of trends you want to pay attention to: short-term trends and long-term trends. Short-term trends in your HRV will be impacted by factors such as pushing too hard with your workouts, not getting enough sleep, or drinking alcohol. You’ll probably be able to spot these trends approximately 24-48 hours after experiencing them.
It’s worth noting that sometimes, short-term trends might not be easily explained. In that case, think of what’s going on in your life that may not be so obvious, but could impact your short-term HRV. Consider things like poor sleep or any recent changes that you’ve made to your lifestyle.
Think of long-term trends as changes from your baseline that go on for more than seven days. However, identifying a long-term trend may not be as simple as spotting an increase or decrease in HRV. For example, a negative long-term trend could be increasing fluctuation in your daily readings or seeing your average HRV fall.
Negative long-term trends typically involve changes in habits or lifestyle that impact you over time. For example:
- Struggling to adjust to a new job
- Continuous problems in a romantic relationship
- Overdoing it with excessive workouts
On the other hand, positive HRV trends will most likely show you steady increases. Examples of positive HRV trends might indicate that you’ve successfully adjusted to a new environment, or maybe you’ve found the optimal training routine.
- Thinking that a high HRV is always desirable
A high HRV reading doesn’t automatically mean that everything is in order. It can sometimes suggest that something isn’t quite right and should be looked into. Here are a couple of examples of when a high HRV reading might be misleading:
- When you get sick and your immune system goes into overdrive, it can boost your HRV. A heightened immune system is great for helping you feel better, but you shouldn’t look at this increase in HRV as an improvement to your overall health.
- Minor stressors can increase your HRV but constant feelings of fatigue or exhaustion aren’t good for your long-term health. If you don’t address these stressors, it can result in a decrease in your health over the long haul.
The moral of the story is: next time you check your reading and ask yourself why your HRV is so high, try not to always assume that it’s always a good thing and realize that it might need looking into.
- Believing that a low HRV is always a red flag
Chronically low HRV isn’t typically something that’s a cause for praise. However, a few low HRV readings aren’t the end of the world. In reality, significant drops in HRV can actually be beneficial, assuming your HRV returns to baseline levels soon after.
For example, a bunch of reasons could factor into your low HRV readings – a new running or weightlifting program, an intense workout or even stress from a nearing deadline.
If you want to improve your HRV, fitness, and overall health, there are going to be times when the impact of stress (i.e. exercise for example) – and then letting your body recover – is actually a good thing. Experiencing periodic drops in HRV that return to your baseline lets you know that you are placing your body under enough stress to grow, adapt, and improve over the long haul.
Just make sure you’re not overdoing it and always listen to your body when it tells you to rest.
- Only measuring HRV on workout days
It’s a mistake to only measure your HRV on certain days, like on days you’ve scheduled to exercise or busy days which you know are going to be very stressful. Being selective about measuring only on particular days won’t give you a complete picture of what’s going on with your HRV.
“Non-important” days still matter. Life happens. And there are always unexpected or unplanned things popping up that could impact your HRV.
You might go off your diet plan and eat a new food. Maybe you switch up your routine and go out to a social event with some friends. That change in your environment might end up causing you a little bit of anxiety or stress. Or perhaps when it’s time for you to go to bed, you end up tossing and turning all night and don’t get the required amount of good quality sleep.
Consistency is key when it comes to measuring your HRV. If possible, measure HRV at the same time and in the same position (sitting, lying down etc) every day. That way, you have a clearer picture when it comes to interpreting the results.
- Comparing your HRV with others
HRV varies from person to person. Your HRV is going to be different from your mom’s, sibling’s, or friend’s. However, other people’s HRV can’t tell you a whole lot about your own health. For that reason, the only person whose HRV matters is yours.
Instead of comparing yourself to others, take a look at trends within your own HRV. Compare your present and past measurements to gain better insight. HRV can tell you about your current behaviours and what you might need to change to become a healthier individual.
HRV is a good metric to gauge stress and check for imbalances in the autonomic nervous system. It’s easy to make mistakes while measuring HRV, but fortunately, many of these are completely avoidable. Try not to get too hung up on absolute readings with your HRV. Instead, focus on short and long-term trends to see how your HRV changes over time.
Keep in mind that a high HRV doesn’t always mean everything is in order, just like a low HRV isn’t always a cause for concern. Be consistent with measuring your HRV (i.e. even measuring on “non-important” days) and try your best not to compare yourself with others. Your own HRV is the only one that matters.
Disclaimer: The contents of this article are for general information and educational purposes only. It neither provides any medical advice nor intends to substitute professional medical opinion on the treatment, diagnosis, prevention or alleviation of any disease, disorder or disability. Always consult with your doctor or qualified healthcare professional about your health condition and/or concerns before undertaking a new healthcare regimen including making any dietary or lifestyle changes.