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A Deep Dive Into HRV: The Myths & Truths of Heart Rate Variability Testing

James Heathers

Australian HRV researcher Dr. James Heathers (pictured above) is one interesting dude.

On a professional level, he is a Ph.D and an Endeavour Research Fellow in Electrocardiology at Poznan University of Medical Science, where his research revolves around measurement issues in heart rate and heart rate variability.

On another level, he has an extremely interesting and thought-provoking blog, where he writes about health, science, medicine and bioethics, and has articles on topics such as medical sensors embedded in tattoos, how drinking affects sleep quality, how peptides are used for doping by professional athletes, and much more.

In our discussion in this podcast, James and I take a deep dive into HRV, and our topics include:

-How James went from being an experimental psychologist to instead being immersed in HRV research…

-Very interesting ways to use HRV that tend to fly under the radar, including computer gaming and cognitive performance enhancement…

-Whether HRV can really measure the things that the self-quantification industry often claims it can measure (e.g. sympathetic outflow, or blood lactate, or ‘readiness’)…

-When a high HRV may not be a good thing…

-Which supplements and medication affect HRV…

-The main areas of research in HRV now that James is most excited about, including something called HRR and breathing ladders…

-And much more!

Warning: if you know nothing at all about HRV, you will probably need a good intro to HRV prior to listening in, because this particular podcast is a bit more advanced, and skips over the basics of HRV. The good news is that there is over three years of HRV articles and podcasts on BenGreenfieldFitness.com, and here are the most popular and useful:

The Do-It-Yourself Guide To Using Heart Rate Variability Testing to Track Your Stress and Nervous System Health (podcast)

Everything You Need To Know About Heart Rate Variability Testing (podcast)

What Is The Best Way To Track Your Heart Rate Variability (HRV)? (podcast)

25 Ways To Know With Laser-Like Accuracy If Your Body Is Truly Recovered And Ready To Train (article)

Do Professional Sports Teams Have It All Wrong When It Comes To Optimizing Performance & Recovery? (article)

Other resources we discuss during this episode:

James' Facebook page

Article on metabolic breathing ladders

How HRV correlates to blood lactic acid

The effect of fish oil on HRV

Bitalino (a second-generation research grade ECG machine that you can buy for a few hundred dollars)

The SimBand (Samsung has released a research platform for developers called Simband, who can now use the platform to build their own software applications without having to build their own hardware)

Video magnification of HR using a webcam (a lab at MIT developed a method of pulling your heart rate straight out of a webcam picture)

GreenfieldFitnessSystems NatureBeat app for HRV

Do you have questions, comments or feedback on HRV? Leave your thoughts below and either myself or James will reply.

16 thoughts on “A Deep Dive Into HRV: The Myths & Truths of Heart Rate Variability Testing

  1. For those that are curious about the LF/HF ratio meaning sympathetic/parasympathetic balance, they should read: Reyes del Paso, G. A., Langewitz, W., Mulder, L. J., Roon, A., & Duschek, S. (2013). The utility of low frequency heart rate variability as an index of sympathetic cardiac tone: a review with emphasis on a reanalysis of previous studies. Psychophysiology, 50(5), 477-487.

    It calls into question a lot of the hypothesis. These researchers are extremely against the idea that LF is related to the SNS, but even among more conservative voices, that interpretation is thought to be antiquated, and it as a combo at best.

  2. So I’ve been tracking my HRV for about 1 month now and I have an interesting finding…

    28 year old male, by the way. First thing in the morning when I get up, I’ll take it and I will generally hover between 72-74. I’ve always struggled with insomnia and waking during the night. If I get a bad nights sleep, my waking HRV will be around 67-68.

    However, after my requisite 2 cups of coffee OR 3 shots of espresso, my HRV will jump to 84-85 consistently. Every single time. Or if it was in the high 60’s, it’ll jump to the high 70’s. Any thoughts on this? Thanks.

  3. Hi Ben

    My rMSSD is consistently between 109 (my lowest reading) and 148 (highest reading) and yet every bit of literature I have scoured the internet for says that for a 50 yr old a rMSSD around 80 is brilliant and 50-60 is normal and that if you are close to 100 then you should be at the Olympics (or a practicing superhero!) Since I don’t wear my underwear on the outside of my clothes and certainly at 50 yrs old destined for the Olympics, WTF do I make of all this?

  4. so…with all these new devices what do yall recommend for tracking basic HRV for stress and fitness training? Polar H7 chest strap? garmin? fitbit? Im looking to purchase a chest strap but want to be sure I get the right one?

  5. Hey Ben,

    I'm new to your site. The answer to the Advanced HRV poser at the end of your podcast (which I heard today) lies with ancient yogic practices (especially Kriya Yoga). For a modern western exposition of the same, with the understanding of baro receptors, sympathetic vs parasympathetic activation through nasal breathing during intense activity, nitric oxide vasodilatation, etc. please see Dr.John Duillard's book Mind Body Sport.

  6. Anyone have the experience where your HRV jumps up on less sleep. I always try to get 7-8 hours of sleep a night but whenever I get around 6 hours my HRV jumps up significantly. Everything else is consistent (diet, exercise, etc) with sleep being the only variable. Could this mean that my ideal nights sleep is only 6 hours. Any thoughts anyone has would be appreciated. Thanks!

  7. Have been tracking my HRV for about 9 months and have found the process really interesting. I am 40 and find that my HRV Iis generally in the 80s, drops into the mid 70s the day after a hard HIIT session or squats/deadlifts. I too struggle with SNS/PNS balance – ratio generally LF/HF ratio in the 5.0 to 12.0 range.

    I find that my rMSSD is the measurement that has the greatest range of variability – 70 ish to 130 ish.

  8. Informative podcast as usual, but Dr. Heathers highlighted many of the challenges and unknowns of HRV. I’ve been in contact with the developers of ithlete and they mentioned specifically the issue with breathing, which is why their app has a display that guides your breathing rhythm. SweetBeat also has a breath monitor on another screen, but I’m not sure that the app takes into account the influence of breathing on HRV. I also contacted ithlete about overall scores and the feedback I received was that one would expect it to decline after a harder workout and elevate after a rest day, which I have observed to be true. Otherwise the number is just seen as a guide and is not inherently good or bad (unless it is really bad).

    My biggest questions with HRV are about the overall score in SweetBeat and the sympathetic/parasympathetic numbers. My baseline HRV is around 60, which the SweetBeat folks say is perfectly normal for my age (40). I’ve hear Ben say he doesn’t recommend hard workouts unless HRV is greater than 80 or so, in which case I would never do more than go for a walk. I’ve also noticed that my sympthetic numbers are always far, far higher than my parasympathetic numbers. Even after multiple rest days this does not change. I take my HRV 1st thing in the morning, so I’m not sure if this has anything to do with morning cortisol release. I couldn’t quite understand Dr. Heathers’ opinion of the whole sympathetic vs. parasympathetic and whether or not it is really measuring what we think it is. Thoughts, Ben?

    1. Dude, in terms of thoughts, honestly, I usually spend the first 20-30 minutes on the phone with folks about diet, stress, exercise, mold, EMF, detox, etc. before I can even *begin* to wrap my head around what is causing low HRV! I'd be happy to help you via a personal one-on-one consult. Just go to http://greenfieldfitnesssystems.com/product/ben-g… and then choose a 20 or 60 minute consult, whichever you'd prefer. We can schedule ASAP after you get that.

  9. Dr. Heathers mentioned that there are no commercial HRR solutions. SweetWaterHealth's SweetBeatLife includes an HRR test, which measures HR recovery over the 60 seconds following the end of an exercise session.

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