WORKOUT ANYTIME Fitness Blog: Heart Rate Variability


We all know that exercise is key to health and fitness, but it is easy to lose sight of the fact that exercise is a stimulus and stressor and that progress occurs during recovery from exercise!

There are many factors which affect our ability to recover from and improve from exercise including adequate sleep, breathing patterns, hydration, nutrition, and mental ability to relax to name a few.

Measuring your Heart Rate Variability (HRV) is an accurate and easy way to check your recovery status.  HRV refers to the fact that the time between each heartbeat continuously changes!   The picture above shows the change in time between each beat of the heart on an electrocardiogram.  Even though the time between each heart beat is always varying your heart rate – expressed as beats per minute – can be steady at times.

For example, an average heart rate of 60 beats per minute (bpm) does not mean that the interval between every heartbeat is exactly 1.0 sec, instead they may fluctuate/vary from 0.5 sec up to 2.0 sec.   During exercise, HRV decreases as heart rate and exercise intensity increases. HRV also decreases during periods of mental stress.

As a general rule of thumb we want to see HIGHER Heart Rate Variability.    Higher HRV indicates that your body is in a highly responsive state and able to quickly adjust to changes and challenges to optimize homeostasis.   Homeostasis refers to the need for your body to maintain a consistent internal environment to function properly so your body needs to constantly adjust to changes such as changes in air temperature, changes in muscle activity, changes in light level, etc.

HRV is regulated by the autonomic nervous system (ANS) which controls the function of our internal organs such as heart, lungs, intestines, level of arterial tension, digestion, etc.    The Autonomic Nervous System has two parts:  Sympathetic and Parasympathetic.  

The sympathetic nervous system is the “fight or flight” system, while the parasympathetic nervous system is often considered the “rest and digest” system. In many cases, these systems have “opposite” actions such as the Sympathetic System turning off digestion and the parasympathetic System turning on Digestion. 

Parasympathetic activity decreases heart rate and increases HRV, whereas sympathetic activity increases heart rate and decreases HRV.    Recovery is all about increased parasympathetic activity.   When your sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) is active for long periods of time – you cannot recover from stress and sooner or later you will begin to experience symptoms and disease.  This is what being “Stressed Out” is all about!

Measurement of HRV

Measurement of HRV allows you to know how your body is responding and adapting to all the stressors in your life.  By measuring HRV each morning upon waking before you rise from bed or eat or drink anything you can very accurately track your recovery status.   There are several easy-to-use devices and apps available to measure your HRV:


      Fitbit – in the Sense, Versa 2 and 3, Charge 4, Inspire 2 and Luxe models – less expensive than many other options

      Oura Ring – – very popular and one of the best available and simple ring   

By looking at your HRV daily you will quickly notice patterns and find out how different workouts, alcohol intake, stress and caffeine affect your recovery.  You will also see how your HRV score tracks directly with the quality of sleep.   When you have a great nights sleep you will see it reflected in improved HRV!

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