Heart Rate Variability—A Tool to Interpret the Messages from Your Body

Last year I decided to take a class with a focus on intuition–learning to tune into that unconscious knowing that we all have access to.  As a person who has spent the better part of her life in science and health care related fields, this was new territory for me.  The definition of intuition, “the ability to understand something immediately, without the need for conscious reasoning” was both exciting and confusing.  How can I know something if I don’t think about it and learn it?  What I discovered, though, was that the bias of our own beliefs and perceptions can hinder our abilities to know and learn.   Creativity, knowingness, intuition, and that logical brain all have a place and value.  Part of the fun of being here as human beings is that we get to experiment with how these best work in our lives!

Class met on a weekly basis, and luckily for the triathlete in training there were foam rollers available in the classroom.  I’d usually take the opportunity before class to grab a foam roller and work on any muscles that had tightened up during the day’s training session.  One day I was laying on my side and groaning a bit as I worked on my left shoulder when the class instructor walked by.

“Does your body listen to you?”  she asked with a bit of a laugh.

“What?” I replied, unable to fully hear her question over my internal grumblings about my knotty muscle.  Stupid latissimus dorsi!

“Does your body listen to you?”

I was confused.  Usually someone might ask if I listen to my body, or perhaps make some comments about listening to his/her own body.

“What does that mean?” I asked.  She smiled and shrugged and walked out the door.  Being in a class all about learning to listen to the unseen, I figured this was some mysterious riddle whose answer would unlock the secrets of the Universe.  Or maybe I am supposed to sit with it, working to solve the unsolvable until my mind went blank and I reached a state of enlightenment?  Is the Universe telling me something?  Am I communicating with my body in some secret way I am unaware of?

For whatever reason, that question stuck with me.  And the answer?

Our bodies DO listen to us.  And to everything else.  And they do it ALL OF THE TIME!  Our bodies are constantly absorbing and responding to information from our environment.  They take this information and provide us cues through our physical, mental, and emotional responses to help us navigate towards well being.  The volume of its signals, though, often matches the volume of the stressor.  We may not pick up on the body’s communication about small stressors as those in isolation don’t really slow us down.  Where this can be problematic, though, is when those small stressors start to accumulate over time.  Often it isn’t until we’re in a state of injury, illness, or high emotional stress and our bodies start screaming at us that we stop to listen.  How, though, can we start to learn to pick up on those subtle cues before we’re in a crisis mode?

If you’ve read this far, maybe you’ve forgotten the blog title, or maybe you’ve stopped reading to contemplate other mysteries of the Universe.  Or, more likely, you may be wondering what all of this has to do with Heart Rate Variability (HRV)?

HRV can serve as an objective tool that helps us listen to our body’s subtle cues.  Using that as a guide, we can start to make the changes our body is asking for BEFORE we encounter undesirable changes.  Or, if we’re currently experiencing illness, injury, etc., it can serve as a tool to monitor the effectiveness of the changes we make.

HRV is an easily measured, non-invasive means of evaluating our nervous system’s response to stress.  When we are under more stress, our HRV numbers drop.  This stress hinders our cognitive abilities, we’re less emotionally resilient, and more prone to injury and illness.  When we’re responding well to stress our HRV numbers increase and we are in a position to enjoy a better state of health.

Learning your HRV baseline and monitoring daily changes can provide the first opportunity to tune into your body’s subtle communications about your current stress levels.  From there, it can be used to monitor interventions.  Is your body asking for more or less exercise?  More water?  A meditation or guided breathing?  A change in nutrition?  Something else?  If we choose an intervention our body is asking for, then we will see positive changes in our HRV numbers.  If not, that information just brings more clarity as to which direction to go for the next intervention.

Over the next few weeks we’ll discuss how to start using HRV as a listening tool in your life and sports training.  Next up we’ll cover what HRV is, how it is used, and technology you can use to learn and track your own numbers.  After that, we’ll spend time discussing how this is relevant to health, wellness, and training and dive into the interventions that research has found to be the most effective in making a positive change.

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