In this week’s episode of the Sports Medicine Weekly podcast, Dr. Brian Cole discusses heart rate variability, or HRV, which is an important metric for determining the body’s readiness to perform. Since February is American Heart Month, it is important to get your heart health in check!


Heart Rate Variability, more commonly known as HRV, is a measure of the variability between heartbeats. HRV is controlled by the autonomic (think automatic) nervous system (ANS). The ANS has two parts: sympathetic nervous system (flight or freeze), and the parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest). The brain is constantly processing information and eliciting responses in a region called the hypothalamus. The ANS provides signals to the hypothalamus, which then instructs the rest of the body either to stimulate or to relax different functions. Our ANS most often responds to exciting news, negative interactions, or sudden surprises or shocks. However, persistent instigators such as stress, poor sleep, unhealthy diet, dysfunctional relationships, isolation or solitude, and lack of exercise, can disrupt this balance and the body’s fight-or-flight response can shift into overdrive

HRV and Heart Health

Chronic stress resulting in low HRV can be dangerous to the cardiovascular system, leading to heart disease, heart attack (myocardial infarction) and ultimately, cardiac death. Healthy individuals, with a high HRV, tend to have improved focus, remain calm, improved mental and athletic performance, breathing, pain tolerance, blood pressure, and resilience. Regular physical activity and fitness indicate a healthy heart, and likewise, a healthy hear equates to high HRV. Tracking resting heart rate can also indicate fitness and well-being, with a lower resting heart rate indicating stronger overall fitness. HRV is one of the most reliable, non-invasive ways to monitor the body’s balance between parasympathetic activity (measured by high HRV, low respiratory rate, and low heart rate) and sympathetic activity (measured by reduced HRV, elevated heart and respiratory rates, and high blood pressure). The vagus nerve and parasympathetic nervous system are where you seek balance and an increased HRV and vagal tone.

Tune into this week’s episode of the Sport’s Medicine Weekly podcast to celebrate American Heart Month and to learn more about Heart Rate Variability.

Authored by Zach Meeker, Research Assistant for Midwest Orthopaedics at Rush University Medical Center.

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