The Importance of Heart Rate Variability (HRV) to Health, Wellness, and Performance – Part 1

Recently, I have become a BioForce HRV Pro Trainer, which was a certification program offered by Joel Jamison, who is the creator of BioForce HRV, and I am extremely excited to introduce this cutting edge technology to my readers, clients and friends!

This technology is becoming increasing important to my training programs, and is hugely important to the success of my clients. However, even though HRV technology has been around since the 1960’s, it’s importance to the athlete, average gym goer, and older adult has not been made clear. HRV technology has recently (i.e. early 2000’s) exploded into research journals, and has gained some popularity in some small, in-the-know health and human performance circles because of the massive influence it can have training progression.

This first part of the HRV education will be a general introduction to the underlying mechanisms of which HRV is founded on.

When explaining the significance of HRV, explanations can get really scientific and lead into discussion about literally thousands of research papers, and much of that research has been published relatively recently with a huge surge of literature coming in and after the year 2000. However, in the simplest terms, HRV is a sensory systems for the body that keeps you from crossing thresholds that could potentially lead to death. Monitoring your HRV answers two major training questions, “Are you doing too much?” and “Are you doing enough?”

All too often I see people “killing it” in the gym day in and day out, and sometimes I see people who just don’t reap any benefit from all the work they are putting in. Wouldn’t it be nice to finally have something that is an objective guide that tells you when to “kill it” and when to back off? Well, HRV is the guard rail that holds you back from falling off the cliff (Jamison, 2014).

Cation sign: Running off cliff. (n.d.) Digital image. Retrieved from http://heysko.com/funnypictures/0972.html. 9/12/2014.

Image Credit: Running off cliff. (n.d.) Digital image. Retrieved from http://heysko.com/funnypictures/0972.html. 9/12/2014.

Going a bit deeper, HRV is monitoring the connection between the central nervous system (CNS) and the heart. A reading of that connection can reveal how the CNS is perceiving and responding to the environment, the specific physiology of the person, and the tasks that are performed on a daily basis. HRV is measuring one part of our sensorimotor system. That one part is the input of the vagus nerve on the heart; therefore, HRV is the vagus nerve (Jamison,2014).

HRV scores allow us to see on a daily basis a representation of vagus nerve function, which is important, because vagus input on the heart is central to oxygen distribution, and I may be going out on a limb, but oxygen seems to be pretty important to us.. .you know so we can stay alive. (Just ask Sandra Bullock).

Overall, HRV monitoring is looking at the autonomic functioning of the nervous system (i.e. the processes in the body that we do not have conscious control over).

Image Credit: Dreamstime.com Hightlighted nervous system. (n.d.) Digital image. Retrieved from http://drscottamills.com/2013/06/introducing-innate/. 9/12/2014.

Image Credit: Dreamstime.com
Hightlighted nervous system. (n.d.) Digital image. Retrieved from http://drscottamills.com/2013/06/introducing-innate/. 9/12/2014.

So why is this important? Researchers have had some success in revealing that high readings of HRV, or in other words high vagal input, has preventative effects on mechanisms and risk factors that lead to some very pervasive diseases such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, and Alzheimer’s disease (de Couck et al., 2012). Vagus nerve function has an impact on previously mentioned diseases, because vagus nerve function and those diseases are both highly correlated to the regulation of inflammation.

One on hand, we have diseases that can be related to excessive and chronically  elevated levels of inflammation, and on the other hand, we have the vagus nerve (i.e. HRV) that is beginning to be revealed as a central mechanism the body uses to decrease inflammation (de Couck et al., 2012).

Basically, through anti-inflammatory pathways, vagus nerve stimulation inhibits the inflammatory response during illnesses and even after exercise and allows the body to RECOVER as opposed to stay in a in a constant state of STRESS. 

Thus, the influence of the CNS on the inflammatory response creates a relatively new area of study for physicians, neuroimmunology. It should be noted that inflammation is not inherently bad, but when it gets excessive, uncontrolled, and there simply is no system of checks and balances, then there will be health problems, and more importantly to this blog performance problems (i.e. over training/ falling over the cliff).

This is a very basic understanding of what HRV is measuring, and why it is important to us! In part 2, I will cover how this is related to overall health and wellness.

Check out Part 2 here.

References:

de Couck, M., Mravec, B., & Gidron, Y. (2012). You may need the vagus nerve to understand pathophysiology and to treat diseases, 122, 323-328.

Jamison, J. (2014).  A new model of HRV. Podcast retrieved from http://www.bioforcehrv.com

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