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We all know that stress negatively impacts our bodies.

We know that relaxation, sleeping well and eating a nutritious diet can help us live a longer healthier life. Sometimes, though, we do not see the results firsthand. It takes many years of doing the wrong things, for us to realize we need to get our act together. It may be that we find out that we have high blood pressure or that extra couple of pounds each year has really added up. Maybe blood sugar levels creep up to a scary level…..

The abstract idea of stress and how it impacts our bodies and ultimately the quality of our life, is sometimes tossed to the side. I mean really, how do we quantify the effects of a negative interaction with our boss? Or how do we see the impact of chronic sleep deprivation on our brain?

Impact on health and longevity.

Stress and a less than optimal lifestyle can slowly affect our health, but a lot of times it takes a significant event to motivate us to change our ways. But, what if we had a simple way to monitor the effect of stress and its counterpart on our cardiovascular system?

I am a results person. I like concrete proof. I like to see actual proof and I like to know what I am doing actually works! I also like to optimize my health and live a healthier life. Like most people, I also tend to overlook and rationalize the day to day things that do not apparently affect my health. I may miss “little things”, like missing an hour of sleep, grinding my teeth as a result of a stressful day or over-exercising to the point of needing days to recover.

Well over the winter season, I came across a simple measure that was giving me a very simple, yet effective indication of my overall stress level and how this affected my heart and health. It is something I found on my Apple watch. This simple indicator was showing me firsthand and feedback on how stress, poor sleep, illness, etc. was affecting my health.

This measure is called heart rate variability (HRV).

 I was amazed once I started tracking this measure and how some simple breathing exercises and rest had an amazing effect on improving my heart health.

I did a little digging since when I first saw my numbers, it honestly scared me. Unlike heart rate, heart rate variability is better when the number is higher and mine was pretty low. I thought, how could this be. I eat healthy. I run…..

One of the things I discovered, was that the measure is less accurate when taken with a watch, such as the Apple Watch when someone is moving around. The Apple Watch will randomly take HRV, unless using the breath app.

So what is Heart Rate Variability and how can this measure help you?

Heart rate variability is a measure of behavioral flexibility and resilience. Wonder how a stressful day impacts your health? Is there anything you can do to impact how the rest of your day goes?

HRV is the variation in time between each heart beat. Variability refers to the heart’s ability to shift throughout the day. Heart beats are not meant to stay the same throughout the day.  You are supposed to be able to shift gears in response to the environment throughout the day.

High HRV means your heart is performing efficiently. A low heart rate variability is an indicator of poor health, whereas a higher difference in variation of the interval between heart beats is an indicator of more resilience.

There are links between low HRV and depression and anxiety and increased risk for cardiovascular disease, diabetes, stroke  and death.

People with higher heart rate variability may have greater cardiovascular fitness and resilience, and may live longer.

Want to live longer?

Measuring your HRV is an easy non-invasive way to see how your body and mind are reacting to the environment. It also allows you to see quite literally how meditation, sleep, deep breathing and mindfulness affect your health and well-being.

As you age heart rate variability naturally declines. Chronic stress, infections, cancer, high blood pressure, high cholesterol can impact the cardiovascular system. Sick hearts, according to Dr. Watson of the UCLA Barbara Streisand’s Women’s Health, tend to have the same heart rate all the time whether scared, running or resting.

Athletes can use HRV to boost performance. After an intense workout, HRV will lower. When HRV returns to normal, this indicates your body has recovered from the workout. This can be used to prevent overtraining. Furthermore, HRV can be useful for those who have hit a plateau or are getting injured.

Fitness trackers, such as watches and rings are best accurate at rest. Measuring HRV with exercise and for even better accuracy, entails wearing a chest strap.

How to improve heart rate variability:

If there is an underlying medical condition that impacts HRV, that would be something to discuss with your medical professional. As long as there are no underlying medical conditions affecting you, the following can help improve HRV:

Not smoking.

Maintaining a healthy weight and a healthy diet.

Managing stress – meditation, deep breathing, yoga, mindfulness.

Exercise – moderate exercise 150 min a week.

Hope you enjoyed this blog post!

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Heather 🙂

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