Part 2: Screening Heart Rate Variability For Improved Health Optimization

Screen Shot 2015-10-25 at 12.05.44 PMThe autonomic nervous system (ANS) has been carefully developed and improved over the course of our evolution.

The ANS plays an important role not only in physiological situations, but also in various pathological settings. Autonomic imbalance is an increase in sympathetic activity and reduced vagal tone has been strongly linked to chronic pain, disease and illness.

Over the few years, HRV emerged in the health and wellness industry as a means to monitor, assess and test for optimal training and recovery zones in athletes and clients.

In last weeks article we introduced stress and the biochemical changes that can occur in our nervous system when stress becomes intolerable or prolonged. After researching recovery and stress resilience there seems to be 3 key screening protocols that can help give insight into a client’s stress tolerance and training optimization.

These 3 screening protocols were:

  1. Heart Rate Variability (HRV Advanced Analysis)
  2. Sleep Patterns
  3. Resting Heart Rate

Today we feature heart rate variability (HRV) as a simple and practical way of monitoring autonomic nervous system activity.

When looking to improve stress resilience we must consider all the physiological factors that contribute to stress, performance and recovery.

Knowledge is power, and understanding your scope of practice and what you can offer is one piece of the optimization pie. Having a referral network offers you a greater advantage to support your client’s overall health and wellness. Always consider the physiological building blocks. Here are a few we feel are the top building blocks to a client’s success.

Top 10 physiological building blocks:

  1. Central Nervous System & Autonomic Nervous System
  2. Cardio-Respiratory System
  3. Neuro-Muscular System (movement efficiency)
  4. Fascial System Integration
  5. Energy Systems: alactic anaerobic, lactic anaerobic and aerobic
  6. Hormonal Systems & Stress Response
  7. Hydration & Detoxification Systems
  8. Immune System
  9. Brain-Body Loop (Psychoneuroimmunology related systems)
  10. Brain-Body Link (Mental health & cognitive health)

The ANS & Stress Resilience:

Allostasis is our Sympathetic (fight or flight, survival) and Parasympathetic (calming, rest and digest) nervous systems automatic response to external environmental and psychological triggers. These stress responses affect blood glucose, adrenal activation, glucocorticoid/cortisol, testosterone and the digestive system.

In a nutshell, the sympathetic and parasympathetic nerves carry efferent (motor) signals to the heart and afferent signals to the brain for reflex functions.  Parasympathetic nerves slow heart rate through the release of acetylcholine.  Sympathetic nerves accelerate heart rate and force of contraction through the release of epinephrine and norepinephrine from nerve terminals and the adrenal glands.

In a well-rested athlete the body will make micro-adjustments to heart rate based on breathing patterns as well as other physiological processes. The better your vagus nerve innervates your heart, the stronger your vagal tone which is a direct indicator of the health of your sympathetic (fight or flight response) and parasympathetic (rest and recover) nervous system.

HRV has a direct connection to your Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) and can therefore be used to gain insights into your stress resilience and functioning of your overall nervous system.

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Heart Rate Variability:

Basic Heart Rate Variability (HRV) is the degree of fluctuation and change in time between successive heartbeats (also called inter-beat intervals, R-R intervals, N-N intervals, etc.).

HRV differs from traditional resting Heart Rate (HR) that averages the number of heart beats per minute. HRV looks much closer at the small fluctuations of the heart that occur in response to internal and external stimulus.

A high HRV can be an indication of a healthy autonomic and cardiovascular response; and it can also tell you if your client is currently training at optimal levels. Understanding how to build and peak your client, as well as when to program for recovery and de loading is critical to ensure your client is always progressing.

A low HRV could be an indication of age-related system depletion, chronic stress, pathology, or inadequate functioning in various levels of self-regulatory control systems. It can also be an indicator of intolerable volumes in training, which can result in overtraining or undertraining.

A low HRV reading for a prolonged period can also be a red flag. Keeping in mind that HRV is only a glimpse at internal functioning and cannot tell you your client’s glycogen levels, testosterone levels, CNS fatigue, or if there is illness. Therefore, if there is a prolonged low HRV and you have adjusted training volume with no improvement there may be other issues at hand. The largest advantage of HRV analysis is that it can give you the signal that something needs to change or validate that your training volume is optimizing your client’s health.

HRV Technology:

HRV technology makes it easy and practical for any trainer or healthcare provider to implement into their daily routine. In thinking about the hardware and software tools that are currently available, there are many out there but prices range significantly.

The top tested are Omegawave, Bioforce, ithlete HeartMath and Elite HRV systems. They are all best suited for those who want to use HRV monitoring for the “short term reading” application.

At Moveolution, we have chosen Elite HRV as it is the most economical and practical for our business and our clients. The technical support has been exceptional and the design of the online and mobile system is attractive, easy to navigate, collect data and interpret for our clients. All you need is a heart rate monitor strap and the mobile app. 1-3 readings per day to collect the data and our coaches do the rest!

For trainers and coaches interested in knowing more about the application of HRV and integration into your business model, or just for your own health and performance we will be offering an online monthly HRV analysis webinar series in December of 2015. For more information email Sarah Jamieson at [email protected]

Next week we will look at sleep patterns and why sleep and restorative rest is integral to optimizing recovery and performance.

About the Author: Sarah Jamieson

Sarah Jamieson has written 155 posts on this site.

Sarah is the owner and head movement coach at Moveolution; a Vancouver based consulting company focused on the integration of movement and recovery science. Bridging the gaps between the clinical and performance fields Sarah’s passion stems from lifelong passion of Yoga, Jujitsu, and Qi Gong; which she integrates into her coaching practice. She is a full time social change maker, a ‘run-a-muker’ of everything outdoors and repeatedly engages in random acts of compassion.

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