Measuring and Managing Physical & Emotional Stress

I recently had a cool text exchange with a friend about exercise training.  He is a life and business coach who spends way too much time in front of a computer helping others succeed.  Now with the pandemic and isolation, he is spending even more time in front of the computer.  He was wondering if the daily exercise he is doing (1-2 hours per day running and lifting weights) is enough to overcome the amount of sitting he is doing for his overall health.

In addition, at the ripe, young age of 40, he has set a goal of running his first marathon this year.  So his run training has kicked up a notch. With a new goal, overtraining is really easy to do. He wants to know if he is overtraining with his current regime and make sure his training isn’t so much that it leads to overtraining which can lead to injury.  He also wanted my take on some of the physical activity tracking devices people wear that helps monitor how much physical activity he is getting.

When I was an executive at 24Hour Fitness, we were always getting sent new and cool devices to track movement so I have worn iterations of these devices for years.  Currently, I wear the Oura ring for reasons I will mention later.

Although I think some of these movement tracking devices are really cool, I recommended a tool to help understand how your entire system is handling your current situation.  You see, it is not just about the physical activity that leads to overtraining.  We also have to consider the non-physical components of our being.  My spiritual coach and therapist, Dr. George Burris would say we are a soul who has a spirit and on earth lives in a physical body.  All three of these pieces contribute to our well-being and work together.  If we have emotional stress, our neck can become tight.  If we have pain in our lower back, this can weigh heavily on our soul and spirit. If we are in inner conflict, it can manifest as physical pain.  All three (body, spirit, soul) work together and can not be isolated.

It is easy nowadays to measure the steps we take per day but can we also measure the soul and spirit? The answer is kind of.  Recently some researchers have started to use an interesting marker for measuring the non-physical component of our health which allows us to look beyond our muscles, nerves and joints.  This marker is called heart rate variability or HRV for short.

Have you ever wondered what the health impact of staying up too late, eating poorly, travel, financial stress, and lack of exercise does to your body? Do you want to know why some days of exercise and work are amazing and others seem haphazard or downright miserable? Is there anything you can do today to improve your ability to have a better day tomorrow? HRV may be the piece of data that could help you answer these questions.

What is HRV?

HRV is a measure of the variation in time between each heartbeat. This variation is controlled by a primitive part of the nervous system called the autonomic nervous system (ANS). The ANS works subconciously and regulates, among other things, our heart rate, blood pressure, breathing, and digestion. The ANS is subdivided into two large components: the sympathetic (fight or flight) and the parasympathetic (rest and digest) nervous system.

The brain is constantly processing information in a region called the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus, through the ANS, sends signals to the rest of the body either to stimulate or to relax different functions based on priority for survival. For example, if I am running away from bees, my sympathetic nervous system will fire in order to increase heart rate, increase blood flow to working muscles, etc.  The priority at the time is survival or to not get stung.  At the same time, the digestive processes and relaxation functions are stopped so more resources can be used to survive.

The nervous system responds beyond physical dangers such as a poor night of sleep, or that fight with your spouse, but also to the exciting news that you got engaged, or to that delicious healthy meal you had for lunch.  Ideally, the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems would be in balance most of the time.  Spikes in the fight or flight with spikes in rest and relax for an overall balanced nervous system.

We handle good and bad stimuli all day long. However, if we have persistent instigators such as stress, poor sleep, unhealthy diet, dysfunctional relationships, isolation or solitude, and lack of exercise, this balance may be disrupted, and your fight-or-flight response can shift into overdrive causing an imbalance in your system.

A healthy nervous system is adaptable and measured by HRV by differences in heart rate intervals.  The more variable the more adaptable thus a higher HRV.  The higher HRV equates to a healthier system.

Why check heart rate variability?

HRV can identify these ANS imbalances. If a person’s system is in more of a fight-or-flight mode, the variation between subsequent heartbeats is low. If one is in a more relaxed state, the variation between beats is high. In other words, the healthier the ANS the faster you are able to switch gears, showing more resilience and flexibility. Over the past few decades, research has shown a relationship between low HRV and worsening depression or anxiety. A low HRV is even associated with an increased risk of death and cardiovascular disease.

People who have high HRV may have greater cardiovascular fitness and be more resilient to stress. HRV may also provide personal feedback about your lifestyle and help motivate those who are considering taking steps toward a healthier life. It is fascinating to see how HRV changes as you incorporate more prayer, gratitude, meditation, sleep, and especially physical activity into your life. For those who love data and numbers, this can be a nice way to track how your nervous system is reacting not only to the environment, but also to your emotions, thoughts, and feelings.

How do you check your heart rate variability?

In the office, I use a system called the Omegawave.  The gold standard is to use a long strip of an electrocardiogram (pictured above) which the Omegawave uses.  Omegawave also allows me to test the Direct Current (DC) of your brain waves at the same time to get a true ‘readiness’ score. This test is a painless, quick (4-5 minute), and inexpensive test that can be done in the office.  Click here for a YouTube video of me performing this test at Body Lounge. This measurement would give us a baseline to compare to since the OmegWave measurement is more accurate than your wearable devices.  A good analogy is getting your bodyfat done in a dunk tank.  The dunk tank is the gold standard to compare your home scale against.  Once we know an accurate measure we can use the other measuring device to check for change and adjust our lifestyle. Check your HRV in the mornings after you wake up, a few times a week, and track for changes as you incorporate healthier interventions. I currently am using the Oura ring for daily monitoring and the Omegawave once per month to see if my interventions are helping.

What is Normal HRV?

I don’t like to use the term ‘normal’.  I have found these numbers are very unique to each person.  I like to use HRV as a measuring point in which to either maintain or improve.  I would love to see everyone’s HRV above 75ms.  Between 25 – 75ms I know we need to implement some techniques to raise the score.  Below 25ms I am going to recommend some serious alterations to your lifestyle.  Some of the alterations may be:

  • Improving Air Quality
  • Breathing Techniques
  • Physical Movement
  • Nutritional Recommendations
  • Sleep Hygiene
  • Gratitude Journaling
  • NuCalm Meditation
  • Pain relief techniques

The Bottom Line

Tracking HRV is a great tool to motivate behavioral change. HRV measurements can help create more awareness of how you live and think, and how your behavior affects your nervous system and bodily functions. While you can’t avoid stress altogether, it could help you understand how to respond to stress in a healthier way. Think of HRV as a preventive tool, a visual insight into our soul, spirit and physical body.

If you would like to have your HRV measured in our office, please call 972-803-4432 to set-up an appointment.  We can then devise a plan together to improve your own adaptability to the stress surrounding us.

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