Heart Rate Variability

October 7, 2012

From Wikipedia:

Heart rate variability (HRV) is a physiological phenomenon where the time interval between heart beats varies. It is measured by the variation in the beat-to-beat interval.

It’s apparently healthier to have a larger HRV value which represents better “vagal tone.”  I understand that this is similar to the idea that a rubber band which is more elastic is less likely to snap.  This metric has been implicated as a measure of willpower, readiness for physical training, and even longevity.  So definitely sign me up for safe interventions to increase HRV.

I was first introduced to the idea of HRV by the biofeedback game “Wild Divine” which we purchased for my sister-in-law after she was diagnosed with breast cancer.  This game series has some questionable new age content, but I’m not totally against the idea of mindfulness training tied to HRV and GSR (Skin Conductance) biofeedback.  My friend Robin B.  was less forgiving of the idea when I showed it to him.   He suggested that coherent breathing should be a consequence of mindfulness not a path to it.

I was next exposed to HRV by Dave Asprey’s QS 2011 talk.   Asprey suggested that HRV training produces some physiological changes similar to those attributed to meditation.  I doubt that you can really extract an “active ingredient” from meditation, but I am pretty lazy so I am open to any shortcuts that might be available.  Asprey is a huckster, but his Bulletproof Exec site does showcase some interesting toys.  I am a bit skeptical about some of the personal performance science he promotes, but he doesn’t seem quite so full of shite as Timothy Ferriss.

HRV was brought up again at QS 2012 by Ronda Collier from Sweetwater Health who makes an HRV app called BeatHealthy.  Ronda gave a great explanation of HRV and told a funny story about how the HeartMath folks overdue the coherence monitoring by trying to stay coherent during rush hour traffic or during meetings.  Her view was that coherence is a training state that should not be maintained  throughout the day.

Most recently I started reading “the Willpower Instinct” by Kelly McGonigal.  I am reading this because Michael Kim recommended it during his Habit Design talk at QS 2012 conference this year.  I joined the Habit Design meetup and will be trying to install a more fault tolerant writing habit.  McGonigal says that HRV is a good index of willpower.  She claims that a quick way to build willpower is to slow your breathing:

Slowing the breath down activates the prefrontal cortex and increases heart rate variability, which helps shift the brain and body from a state of stress to self-control mode.

McGonigal Ph.D., Kelly (2011-12-29). The Willpower Instinct (Kindle Locations 618-619). 

I have been doing HRV coherence exercises using the IOM Grapher in the “Healing Rhythms” software from Wild Divine.  This basically just involves reducing your breathe rate to between 4 and 6 breaths per minute.  I also ordered a Wahoo ANT+ heart rate monitor and I intend to start tracking HRV using the BeatHealthy app when it arrives.  Some athletes use HRV to determine if they are recovered enough to train that day, maybe I can use it to determine if I will have the will to write that day.  😉

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