You now should understand how stress is reflected in your heart rate and also have an understanding of how to measure your resting heart rate (RHR) as well as your heart rate variability (HRV).
Once you begin tracking these two metrics for a few weeks consistently, you should have a pretty good understanding of what your baseline is which is critical for making this data actionable.
As we talked about in the previous post, acute changes in either RHR or HRV likely do not warrant any concern as you will see fluctuations in both metrics everyday.
However, if you see a trend of a higher than normal RHR and lower than normal HRV, then you probably want to take a look at interventions that can help correct and improve these markers.
My number one way to improve signs of stress reflected in RHR and HRV is to take a look at your sleep.
Has your sleep quality and/or quantity been decreasing alongside your RHR and HRV measurements or do you have chronically poor sleep?
If so, I would start there. Nothing else that I am going to suggest in this article is going to matter or have as big of an impact on your RHR and HRV than sleep.
Here are some posts I have made on the impact sleep has on your health as well as actionable things you can do to improve your sleep.
Next on the list of things to improve your resting heart rate and HRV is stress. Now technically everything that I am talking about in this post is a stress, but in this section I am talking about general life stress….the type of stress that happens because we live in modern society. Think of things like work stress, family stress, kids, the driver that cut you off, financial stress…that type of stuff. If you are a giant ball of stress, and you are having trouble managing it all, it’s going to show up in your RHR and HRV.
Once again I have written extensively about stress and tools to manage it so I will point you to those posts to help you better manage your stress.
Next on our list of things that will negatively affect your RHR and HRV is diet. The best example I can give of how diet can impact your heart rate is alcohol. One to two drinks for me and my RHR goes up and my HRV declines. This is true for most people, but not everyone, some people have a higher threshold.
However alcohol is technically a “poison” and the body works very hard to remove it from the body, this is obviously quite stressful. Alcohol is not unique though, if you have food sensitivities and you consume those foods, your body will react in a similar way to if you had consumed alcohol. I observe a similar trend whenever I eat fatty cuts of meat that have been slow cooked. They don’t sit well with me and that shows up as a stress on my body.
The action item here is something you should already be doing, eating a primarily whole foods diet that is customized to fit your goals and constraints. That is going to be the foundation for improving your resting heart rate and HRV. Maybe you need to remove certain foods, or eat less, or eat more…it’s not going to be a simple overnight fix, but dialing in your diet is going to go a long way for all aspects of health.
The final intervention you can use to help improve resting heart rate and HRV is exercise. Context comes into play with exercise though, because if you are exercising too much it will negatively impact your RHR and HRV, at the same time too little exercise can do the same! In other words you are going to have to look at your own exercise routine and determine where you stand.
If you are doing too much exercise, do less! By do less I mean less from both a volume point of view (total number of minutes you are exercising) and from an intensity point of view (how hard you are exercising). If you are exercising too much or the exercise you are doing is too intense your body will be under too much stress. I find with hard training athletes that if they get to a point in their training that they are not recovering and their RHR and HRV are not normal it takes 1-2 weeks of very easy exercise before it bounces back to normal.
What does “very easy” exercise look like in practice?
Most days it’s just walking, especially to start. If things start to improve we might throw in very easy cardio. If things are still progressing while adding back in the cardio, we will add in light resistance training at 1-2 sets per exercise.
If you are someone who is doing too little exercise and needs to add in more exercise to help improve their resting heart rate and HRV, I would begin with easy aerobic exercise.
Why start there?
Everything we do pretty much relies on our aerobic system to function properly. In other words improve your aerobic capacity and you make everything you do, from walking, to going grocery shopping, to lifting weights, to doing cognitive work easier. The resulting stress load on the body therefore can dramatically decrease by the vast reach of the aerobic system.
Below is some good information on why aerobic training is so important and how to begin improving your aerobic capacity.
One final note on chronically elevated resting heart rate and chronically low HRV…any kind of illness or infection will have a huge impact. If you have a medical condition of some kind then that is going to put a large stress load on your body. If you suspect you might have an undiagnosed medical condition please work with a medical professional to try to get to the bottom of it. Once you do, you can see dramatic changes in your RHR and HRV.
That’s it! You should now understand how your heart can reflect your overall stress load, how to measure your resting heart rate and HRV, what patterns to look at in those measurements, and actionable steps you can take in order to improve those measurements when they start to decline.
As always the goal with my blog is to educate and tie in real life actionable things you can do to impact your health in a positive fashion. If you have enjoyed reading this blog post series, please sign up for my newsletter below so you can keep up to date with all the information I put out on a weekly basis, I promise it will help you get closer to your goals!