What Is HRV? 9 Easy Ways to Improve Your Score and Wellness
Over the last two years, I’ve become obsessed with tracking my health metrics. The key, of course, is maintaining a close relationship with my fitness band. My HRV score is the first thing I check in the morning. Yep—before the ‘gram, before I sip some H20, and really, before I even roll out of bed. But if you’re wondering ‘what is HRV’—no worries, you’re not alone.
Basically, it gives me a breakdown of what I can and can’t do that day. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone down a Google search, what-is-HRV rabbit hole. But after much research, and again, getting cozy with my fitness tracker, I finally *get it*—and I can’t wait to share.
Feature image by Riley Reed.
A Quick Overview of HRV
Essentially, your HRV score is a quick and accurate way to understand how much your body is able to handle stress or how much stress it’s been under on any given day. I like to think of HRV as being similar to reading my own personal gas tank meter. Sure, I know it seems a bit crazy to hand over so many of my decisions to technology, but paying attention to your daily HRV score can actually improve the connection you have with your body.
If my day is flexible, my HRV score will dictate how hard I work out, whether or not I drink alcohol, and how early I need to head to bed. This practice has truly improved my life in more ways than one—and I’m just getting started. After all, a life without stress isn’t possible, so building resilience against stress is our only option for achieving optimal health.
Today, I’m sharing more about what is HRV on a practical level, how to improve your HRV score, and the connection between HRV and your autonomous nervous system. Without further ado, let’s dive into all things HRV.
What is HRV?
Let’s start with the nitty-gritty. HRV (Heart Rate Variability) is simply the measure of variation between your heartbeats. Your heart rate might be 60 BPM, but your heart probably isn’t beating every second. One heartbeat may be at .06 seconds while another is 1.2 seconds. This variation is subconsciously controlled by our Autonomic Nervous System. (More about this later.)
What can HRV tell you?
OK, so you have a new acronym under your belt, but you’re probably thinking—let’s get to the good part. We know what HRV is, but why is it important? Turns out, people with a high HRV score have “healthier” and more responsive nervous systems. These people are more likely to have longer lifespans, better cardiovascular fitness, and are better able to cope with stress.
Having a high HRV means your Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) is able to switch quickly between sympathetic mode, aka “fight or flight,” and parasympathetic mode (your “rest-and-digest” system). A low HRV means you can’t switch as easily between these two modes, and your body remains in a state of stress for far too long.
With that in mind, it’s important to know that the goal isn’t to be so calm that others ask you if you’ve been a monk in a past life. Instead, you want to be able to bounce back from high-stress moments as quickly and efficiently as possible—without, of course, causing harm to yourself or others.
What are the benefits of a balanced nervous system?
If you’re chomping at the bit to improve your HRV and make your nervous system your superpower, know this: You’re not alone. Olympic athletes and high-level CEOs all work with HRV coaches to gain an edge over their competitors. There are even companies racking the HRV of their employees to get ahead of burnout and maximize the health of their team. To gain more insight, I asked Laura Larios, a High-Performance Nervous System Coach, how her coaching makes a difference for her leaders.
“Our nervous systems mirror each other. The state of your system is literally affecting everyone around you. The more you are regulated and resilient to stress… the more you can hold that stress so that it’s not going out to your team and triggering a survival response in them as well.”
How do I improve my HRV score?
Good news: You can improve your HRV and learn to better regulate your nervous system. I’ve been using a variety of devices over the years and recently discovered the HRV 4 Training app which has quickly become a fave. The app was developed by Marco Altini, one of Oura ring’s lead data scientists. In speaking with Daniel Rowland, a Coach who works on Marco’s team, I learned that there are two main ways to improve your HRV score: aerobic exercise and HRV biofeedback training.
Because aerobic exercise is relatively self-explanatory and simple to do, let’s dive into what HRV biofeedback training entails.
“The first step to improving your HRV is finding your resonance breathing frequency,” Rowland notes. (Don’t worry—there’s an app for that.) “When we spend time breathing in our specific resonance breathing frequency, we enter the parasympathetic state.” We rest. We digest. We develop resilience to stress. Repeat.
Although Rowland is a long-time user and fan of the HRV 4 Training app, he doesn’t dispense the Kool-Aid. “There are a lot of other activities that can improve HRV and get us into the parasympathetic state, like walking in nature or engaging in transcendental meditation.”
He also noted that HRV training is not a quick fix and you shouldn’t expect overnight changes. It will take time and consistent effort to re-wire your nervous system so that it’s truly stress-resilient. But change, he emphasizes, and improving your HRV are both definitely possible.
How can I track my HRV score?
There are a myriad of ways to track your HRV score. The polar chest strap, the WHOOP band, and the Oura ring are the most accurate and popular choices on the market right now. But if you’re not into the price, commitment, or even the aesthetic of these devices, have no fear. Nowadays, you can get a pretty accurate HRV reading through an app and camera on your smartphone.
Grab your smartphone as soon as you wake up and record your HRV. After four days of recordings, you’ll discover your personal HRV baseline and be able to make sense of your HRV scores moving forward.
What is a good HRV rate?
Similar to resting heart rate, there are normal HRV ranges based on age and gender. But since HRV is largely genetic and changes slowly over time, it’s important to think about this number in relation to your baseline. Generally, the higher the HRV, the better. But comparing your HRV with athletes, siblings, or friends isn’t helpful when we’re trying to tune into our own nervous systems.
Should I worry about low HRV?
Short answer: nope. HRV is largely genetic, and the important thing to keep in mind is how your daily HRV score relates to your baseline. For example, if your HRV is usually around 60 and one day you wake up and your HRV is 30, it’s time to pause and reflect. A low HRV usually means your body isn’t recovering from the stress of the previous day. If you have a chronically low HRV, it might mean that you’re experiencing chronic sympathetic activation—aka, burnout.
What does HRV on the Oura Ring measure?
HRV isn’t a new metric. Scientists have actually been tracking and studying this number for the last 60 years. But in lieu of clunky and expensive equipment, they’re using devices like the aforementioned Oura ring, Apple watch, and the Whoop band. As a result, average individuals can use HRV to improve their wellbeing. While these devices are great technological steps forward, some argue that they still have a long way to go.
How can you use HRV?
We all understand that we need rest to perform our best. But sometimes, I can’t tell if I actually need to rest, or if I’m just feeling lazy. Anyone else? These devices, and specifically HRV tracking, have helped me make small, but consistent progress toward my goals. And most importantly, I’ve been able to do it without feeling burnout.
I can now look at my HRV score and understand clearly what my body is trying to tell me. What’s more, I’m in tune with my body’s recovery and needs. Sometimes, my body will say, “Nihel, you really need to slow down and rest tonight. Cancel your plans, stretch instead of sweat, and swap that cocktail for some chamomile tea.”
But other days, it’ll tell me to go after that adventure. Add on that extra project. Go all out—you’re unstoppable.