Most people aren’t tracking this key health metric (and they should be)

This story is part of Health by numbersCNET’s deep dive into how we quantify health.

Thanks to smart watches like Apple Watch and fitness trackers like Fitbitit’s easier than ever to keep tabs on yourself health measurements in home. With just a quick glance at your wrist, you can track your heart rate, pulse and the number of steps you’ve taken in a day. But there’s one important health metric that many people aren’t tracking yet: heart rate variability. This metric, also called HRV, can provide insight into your overall health, stress, fitness levels and much more.

Your HRV is the amount of time between your heart beats. And while that may not sound profound, it’s actually an important metric if you know how to find it. Different from heartbeats or heart rate, is a bit trickier to measure because not all wearables offer it.

One of the few devices that measures HRV, the Whoop tracker, uses that and a few other metrics to help tell you if you’ve recovered well enough from your last workout to train again. These detailed metrics are one reason why professional athletes and endurance coaches are big fans of the product. In fact, I’d never really heard of HRV until I checked out the Whoop group on the company’s site.

Like any other metric that fitness trackers I give you, HRV is kind of useless if you don’t understand what it means and how to use it to improve your health and fitness. Keep reading to learn more about what HRV is, how to measure it, and how it can help you optimize your health.

What is heart rate variability?

“HRV is the amount of time between each heartbeat, which is controlled by the autonomic nervous system,” certified personal trainer Holly Roser told CNET. The autonomic nervous system is basically your body’s stress or nervous system regulator and contains two main parts: parasympathetic and sympathetic.

HRV is controlled by your nervous system, which regulates many important systems in your body.

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The nervous system is so important because it is what regulates involuntary systems in your body such as heart rate, digestion, and blood pressure, among others. You can think of the sympathetic nervous system response as your response to stress, or what puts you into fight-or-flight mode. The parasympathetic nervous system response is also called the “rest and digest” state and is important for allowing your body to digest food as well as lowering your heart rate and blood pressure.

You probably know that reducing stress is important for health, but what does this have to do with fitness? A lot.

Since when recovery is such an important part of your overall fitness routine, HRV is one of the most useful metrics for telling you if your body is recovered (ie not in a stressed or sympathetic state) so you can train again.

For example, maybe you’ve been exercising a lot and not getting much sleep — but you always stick to your 6 a.m. workout no matter what. You may technically feel good, but you risk overtraining if you push yourself too hard (especially without enough sleep). While using a sleep tracker is definitely useful for measuring how well you slept, HRV is another way to see how well you’ve recovered from previous training or even just from a stressful situation or a night out.

How to measure and use HRV

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The Whoop fitness tracker factors in your HRV to show how well you’ve recovered from exercise.

Screenshot by Mercey Livingston/CNET

To measure HRV, you need some type of heart rate monitor that can accurately measure your heart rate patterns. Some of the more popular devices that include HRV tracking are the Whoop and the Apple Watch.

Since HRV is somewhat complicated to measure accurately, it’s helpful if you use a device that also tracks sleep, resting heart rate, and maximum heart rate, so you can get a bigger picture of your health. .

For example, Whoop tracks your HRV, heart rate, exercise and sleep and uses an algorithm to provide recovery or exercise suggestions. If your HRV is good (higher numbers are better), then you are in optimal condition to exercise or adapt to any type of stress.

A good HRV is a sign that your nervous system can adapt well to different situations, which is good when it comes to dealing with stress and overall balanced health. Average HRV varies by age, but it also varies by individual – it’s best to track your own patterns and note any changes over time, rather than comparing yourself to others.

Why HRV Matters for Fitness and Overall Health

“If your HRV is high, it can be an indicator that you are living a healthier lifestyle and have followed healthy habits such as getting a good night’s sleep, exercising regularly, staying hydrated, eating healthy and reducing of stress,” Roser said.

Since your HRV pattern is a reflection of the stress your body is under, almost all aspects of your lifestyle can affect it. Remember that stress is more than mental — things like illness, emotional difficulties, lack of sleep, and dehydration are all examples of things that put stress on your body.

Everyone encounters some amount of stress (and some types of stress, like exercise, can be beneficial), but it’s important to understand how well your body is handling it. If not, you may risk overtraining or pushing your body when it might be better to take a break. And that can quickly lead to feeling burnt out, sick or just generally exhausted.

“When things are ideal, your beat-to-beat time has a lot of variability. If your interval time between heartbeats is the same, you haven’t recovered yet. That suggests you may be training or just not still recovered and needs either an easier day of recovery training or a rest day in order to achieve more optimal fitness,” said Debra Atkinson, MS, CSCS.

Who can benefit from HRV tracking?

Although HRV is more popular in the world of professional sports and endurance training, it can be useful for anyone to keep track of. Even if you don’t exercise much or train professionally, HRV can help you get a better picture of your body’s stress level, as well as recovery and fitness levels. If you’re the type who’s prone to burnout or overtraining, tracking HRV can be a useful tool to make sure you’re making rest days and recovery a priority.

“For individuals who tend to push themselves and work hard to get better results, HRV monitoring can provide concrete evidence of much-needed rest. If you’re not likely to rest on your own, but find that you’re often injured or sick. HRV can provide the evidence you need to pull back and recover enough so that your fitness, immune system and overall stress level are all more optimal,” said Atkinson.

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The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health care provider with any questions you may have about a medical condition or health goals.

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