What Is Heart Rate Variability, and Why Is It So Important?

What Is Heart Rate Variability, and Why Is It So Important?
Presented by Spartan Training®

Heart rate variability (HRV) is a strong indicator of health – both mental and physical — and the body's ability to survive problems, stressors, and illness. 

Your heartbeat is controlled by your body’s autonomic nervous system (ANS). This system runs and regulates parts of your system that are always “on," such as your breathing, digestion, blood pressure, and heart rate. The autonomic nervous system is divided into two main aspects: the fight-or-flight response or the relaxation response.

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Why Your Heartbeat Fluctuates

When the autonomic system is relaxed, the heartbeat becomes more variable, demonstrating resilience and flexibility. In contrast, the fight-or-flight version of the autonomic system is triggered by stress (caused by unhealthy emotional or physical conditions).

If this stress response of the autonomic system is maintained, heartbeat variability decreases as it moves to a more consistent high pitch. This racing heartbeat is a symptom of high stress, and is also an indicator that the body is being pushed towards an unhealthy and brittle state.

Related: Why the Gut Matters to Athletes (and How to Properly Fuel Your Performance)

A healthy heart rate variability is an indicator of one's ability to bounce back from severe illness, and an indicator of that person’s resilience. One recent study showed that subjects suffering from cancer who had decreased heart rate variability were strongly associated with shorter survival time.

An Indicator of Your Overall Health

This great indicator of overall health is surprisingly easy to access. All it requires is being in tune with your body and your pulse. As you’re feeling your pulse, you’ll notice that time between heartbeats increases when you exhale and decreases when you inhale. If there are sizable differences between the two, you may have healthy heart rate variability.

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