Thinking about your health means understanding your heart health, and paying attention to measures like cholesterol, blood pressure, and triglycerides. There is one more to add to the list: heart rate variability.

“Heart rate variability is the variation in the time between each heart beat,” explains John P. Higgins, MD, MBA, a sports cardiologist at McGovern Medical School at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston. This is different than your heart rate, which is measured by the number of times your heart beats per minute. And unlike your heart rate, which you can calculate by counting your pulse, heart rate variability is measured at the doctor’s office with an electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG) test that records the electrical activity of your heart.

When using the term variability, it refers to your heart beat’s ‘ability to shift throughout the day,’ as one’s heart rate is not meant to be the same, static speed; it changes depending on activities, emotions, and actions. A high HRV means that the body can efficiently change heart rate, depending on activity: intended to be a measure of the efficiency and performance of your cardiovascular system. Heart rate variability may also be a marker of the ways in which your body can handle stress, as a higher HRV communicates a better performance, whereas a lower HRV indicates that it would be difficult to ‘bounce back after a stressful situation.’

While age affects one’s HRV, being at an elevated risk for heart disease also affects it. Moreover, chronic stress, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol may impair functioning of this system, which leads to difficulties with heart rate and blood pressure–and ultimately HRV.

The best way to improve one’s HRV is exercise: even moderate workouts for 150 minutes per week. Biofeedback and meditation have also demonstrated usefulness in improving HRV, as deep & controlled breathing taps into the parasympathetic nervous system, causes one to destress and calm down.

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