Blood pressure, heart rate, and heart rate variability are all separate measurements and indicators of your health.

Heart Rate Variability and your heart lub dub!

Nine in ten Canadians have at least one risk factor for heart disease and stroke. The good news is that almost 80% of premature heart disease and stroke can be prevented through healthy behaviors.-3

This means that habits like eating healthy, being active, living smoke-free, reducing stress, and controlling alcohol and drug use can have a big impact on your health.

Your blood pressure, heart rate (pulse), and heart rate variability are all separate measurements and indicators of your health.

It’s important to understand the difference between blood pressure and heart rate because although they can affect one another they are not directly related to each other. While your blood pressure is the force of your blood moving through your blood vessels, your heart rate is the number of times your heart beats per minute. Heart rate variability is the time in-between each heart beat. It is reflective of the internal stress you are experiencing and although somewhat new to the fitness realm it has been well researched as an effective way to measure the physiological efficiency of the body.


Blood Pressure measured in millimetres (mm) of Mercury and is the result of two forces or pressure readings. One test will give you two numbers such as 120/80 which is the Systolic pressure (upper number) reading over the Diastolic pressure (lower number) reading.

Systolic blood pressure indicates how much pressure your blood is exerting against your artery walls when the heart beats and pumps blood out of the heart and into the arteries which are part of your circulatory system.

Diastolic blood pressure indicates how much pressure your blood is exerting against your artery walls while the heart is resting between beats and refilling with blood for the next beat.

Blood Pressure Categories

This table from Heart and Stroke  defines varying blood pressure categories: low risk, medium risk, high risk. See your doctor or healthcare provider to get a proper blood pressure measurement.

Category – Low risk
Systolic/Diastolic – 120 / 80

Category – Medium risk
Systolic/Diastolic – 121-139 / 80 – 89

Category – High risk
Systolic/Diastolic – 140+ / 90


Heart Rate is the number of times your heart beats per minute.  Your heart is a muscle, and the stronger and more efficient it is, the more easily it pumps blood throughout your circulatory system. A lower heart rate usually indicates a healthy and strong heart muscle.

You can measure your own heart rate the old fashioned way or use one of the many devices available on the market.

  • Take your pulse on the inside of your wrist, on the thumb side.
  • Use the tips of your first two fingers to press lightly over the blood vessels on your wrist.
  • Count for a full minute to get the most accurate reading.
  • Take in the morning before rising will give you the best indication of what your resting heart rate is. This can be used to calculate specific ranges for heart rate intensity training that are more accurate than the standard of 220 minus your age to obtain your heart rate maximum.

Heart rate and exercise

Measuring your heart rate before, during and after exercise will give you an idea of your heart health. The greater the intensity of the exercise, the more your heart rate will increase. When you stop exercising, your heart rate does not immediately return to your normal (resting) heart rate. The sooner it does return to a normal rate has recently been found as a positive factor in heart health management.

A rising heart rate does not cause your blood pressure to increase at the same rate. Even though your heart is beating more times a minute, healthy blood vessels dilate (get larger) to allow more blood to flow through your body and deliver more blood to your muscles.  You want your heart rate to increase with exercise but your blood pressure to respond by only increasing a modest amount.

The concept of heart rate variability (HVR) is not new but the technology behind it is.  There is a lot of research on heart rate variability spanning over the last 40 years including 20,000 studies published on the findings. Until recently, this technology was only available to the medical and research professionals. Now, we can take it out of the hospital and into the fitness training environment thanks to Bluetooth heart rate straps and phone apps. (Some of which are free.)

Heart rate variability is a simple tool that can help to figure out what’s going on within the autonomic nervous system. The data that you can collect can tell you a lot about things going on in the body that you can’t necessarily feel. It’s the time between heart beats that is recorded over time that determines the variability.

The autonomic nervous system is fundamental to what’s going on inside the body and the time between beats is reflected in this number.

There are two branches of the autonomic nervous system: the sympathetic system and the para-sympathetic system.

The sympathetic system is your gas pedal or flight or fight response. It has a greater influence on the body when awake.

The para-sympathetic system is your brake pedal or your rest and digest system. It has a greater influence during rest and influences your ability to recover.

The balance between these two systems is heart rate variability. The irony of this physiology is that you actually want to have variability, as it reflects good physiological function. We can’t feel the autonomic nervous system but there is a constant push and pull going on within it. Having no heart rate variability would mean there is less push and pull and your system is not efficiently responding.

Psychological and physical stress both eat up your resources and internally we can’t really tell them apart. The autonomic nervous system is fundamental to everything that occurs within the body. It’s the recovery that’s important for adaptation and improvements in fitness. Short term after exercise, you will see a decrease in heart rate variability as the number reflects the internal stress you are still experiencing. Over the longer term, you would like your heart rate variability to trend upwards as an indicator of total health and fitness improvement.

Exercise burns energy and we need to be building up (anabolic) not breaking down (catabolic). When we exercise, we go into a catabolic state – the gas pedal is on. The depth of our catabolic response after training affects the depth of our recovery or anabolic response. The deeper that you can go into recovery the better your recovery is going to be which produces many long-term health benefits.

HRV tracks the time between your heart beats over days and weeks and gives us an early indicator of our body’s health and over-all state of readiness for training. This is a leading indicator of our health that we really can’t get any other way but our intuition! This is where HRV can be extremely useful for some individuals. Especially for people who are not particularly intuitive or listen to their own body that much (the “my legs are sore and my back hurts, but I’ll go for a 20 mile run anyway” types).

Why HRV?

HRV can tell us important things and can be an early and subtle indicator of overtraining. The recovery phase is important.  How do we know if we have completely recovered and are ready for your next workout?

HRV can also be an early indicator of diseases such as hypertension, type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol, PTSD, and certain types of cancer according to Dr. Carmin Greico, Assistant Professor of Exercise Science at Glenville State College.

Several studies have validated the usefulness of HRV-guided exercise programs in athletes as well as recreational exercisers.-1
If we program for our clients by applying art and science here we have a little more science available by using HRV.

Ready to try measuring your HRV? Investing a small amount of time and money will get you started. Your can buy an app called uses the camera on your phone to record results from your finger. No heart rate strap needed…I’m tempted!

HRV$TRAINING (Finger reading/no strap needed) ($11.99)
Elite HRV – free app if you already have a bluetooth Polar strap.
Measure in the morning before rising.  Measure it before having coffee, as coffee as this mimics the sympathetic nervous system.
If you are very fit, then HRV can be tested sitting up, otherwise lying in bed is just fine.

Interesting to note: Aerobic training appears in the research right now to be superior to resistance training in terms of affecting the autonomic nervous system.

Physical Inefficiency is reflected by an unfit body. When you address your fitness, nutrition, sleep, and recovery consistently you move towards greater physical efficiency. Developing habits that will reduce your risk of disease is the key to your overall success!

Written by: Sheila Hamilton

Click here to listen to Sheila discuss this with radio personality Jon McComb on his am radio show.  The Fitness Segment airs live every Thursday at 9:05 am CKNW 980 am radio.


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