Sucky Sleep, Early Death HRV Numbers, & My Experience Improving Both
In September of 2019, I decided to go on a journey to begin working on a new chapter of my life that was faster approaching me - life after competitive bodybuilding. Was I going to need to go to counseling? Was I going to let myself go once I retired? What in the hell would I do to further challenge myself?
See, bodybuilding gave me a challenge to pursue because of my brittle bone disease known as osteogenesis imperfecta, but the competition aspect of bodybuilding is coming to a close sooner rather than later, and I love the physical challenge that bodybuilding is along with the mental challenge. It was logical that I needed something new in the physical fitness and health realm to chase and perfect. That challenge would be maximizing my health and fitness to live a wonderfully long life.
If there is one thing I fear more than anything, it is people have to care for me again. Helplessness is a theme that I can show you during 6-7 years of surgeries to walk again. I needed a lot of help and was a burden to a lot of people. That is something bodybuilding gave me power over. It gave me the strength to help myself, so I do not mind lecturing anyone who needs it just how powerful taking ownership of your health and fitness can be.
Therefore, it meant making sure I aged pursuing health more of a long-term perspective than from show to show, where bodybuilding goal setting is usually found. Improving from one show to the next is vital to enhancing obviously, but how would I improve my health and fitness year after year as I age?
This was my question, and I know I needed to monitor things better to achieve my goal of aging awesomely and embracing the next season of my life. I was on a mission to find the tools I needed and the data I needed to understand to make my aging awesomely goal a reality. I found what I was looking for.
Cruising through my journey, which is my coaching career in the health and fitness industry, I stumbled on to something known as Heart Rate Variability (HRV). How HRV caught my eye was in the literature. It was shown as a predictor in terms of longevity. Basically, consistently low HRV scores correlated with 9 out of 10 mortalities, according to the WHO.
I took a few classes, a course, and digested a few books along with digesting 100s of medical articles on the topic. If I could monitor my HRV, I could, in a sense, monitor my body's path towards a longer, healthier life or an earlier grave. I had an iWatch at the time but found my HRV to be unreliable, but most importantly, it sucked at tracking my sleep, and I did not have my resting heart rate or respiratory rate, or body temperature - all contributors to HRV. I basically did not understand how it was getting that HRV number unless monitoring my RR beat, which is the intervals between each heartbeat that send code to your Autonomic Nervous system, which controls whether you are stressed or in a non-stressed state.
After some digging, I decided to drop my iWatch, go back to a G-Shock watch and purchase a WHOOP, which had some stellar data and feedback in it terms of accurately reporting not only your HRV but your sleep cycle in terms of time spent in REM and DEEP, but also your respiratory rate (newer feature added - thanks COVID-19) and your resting heart rate.
Understanding these data points were going to be crucial to improving my HRV. Therefore everything from my training to my HIIT cardio sessions to my nutrition would be under evaluation. This would give me insight into extra stress on top of how I was living my day to day life was impacting my ability to recover. This meant I could see daily the habits I had and the things I did in terms of my body's ability to recover from it.
After a few days of wearing my WHOOP, I noticed a trend. My HRV was never above 20, which is not a good thing as you want your HRV to be over your age in terms of numbers from what the general consensus and reads suggest. It looked as if the trends continued; I was not looking at such a long and stunning life. This opened my eyes to the fact I was not in such a stellar position health wise. I cannot stress enough how once I saw these numbers, I realized I had to change a few of my habits to make my goal of living a long and awesome life a reality.
I began to work on the things I could do to improve my HRV and my chances at how I pictured what 80 was like for me, and below I get into the ways I improved my HRV, lowered my respiratory rate at rest, resting heart rate, and managed to improve my sleep to always having a great sleep every night more often than not.
Sounds cool, eh? Well, let's dive in!
First off, a consistent wake and sleep schedule sounds like a dream, doesn't it? In today's modern world, that is all too true because, let's face It, sleep is as hard to come by as ever.
Life is busier and more fast-paced than ever. The truth is that time does not stop for anyone, which means we have to understand that the key to a more productive life. One that feels and looks great can be found in keeping our body in a consistent sleep and wake cycle.
Your hormones are ripe for being thrown off if you get less than 6 hours of sleep. You will see increased fasted blood glucose numbers and a slow drain on sex hormones due to higher cortisol levels, which will ever so silently drive those numbers down. Cortisol is an enemy to anyone who wants to maximize their health and fitness program results to just good sleep. Cortisol is a stress hormone, and this beautiful hormone by design helps us always run away from a threat.
The issue becomes when your circadian rhythm flops. You might be awake as you go to bed, which is usually from a cortisol response. You might not feel stressed, but your body is, which is why pulling down is crucial.
You also might have it where you feel like you are walking through quicksand when you wake up. Every day it feels like you have cement boots on when you walk. You just plain feel tired. This is known as adrenal fatigue. When this happens, you have been stressed for too long, and cortisol is usually lower along with sex hormones.
I mention these things because the one way you can help fix your body to give a more positive, let's fix this shit kind of mindset is to have a consistent wake and sleep cycle.
The literature and evidence show that those who sleep less than 6 hours are more prone to insulin resistance. There is also more evidence of an increased risk of Alzheimer's. The worse sleep you have in terms of quality, the more likely you are to not recover, which in turn slowly overloads your allostatic load, which is the amount of stress the body can take before it slowly breaking down.
Once you are in a state where things are breaking down, this is how chronic issues begin to manifest and eventually disease.
The good news is that you can help reverse this breaking down by going to bed at a consistent time and waking up at a constant time.
How did I reverse the breaking down of my body? I broke down and bought a WHOOP.
WHOOP measures your Heart Rate Variability (HRV), which you should think of as a lens into your autonomic nervous system (ANS). Your ANS controls two branches of your nervous system. They are known as your sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and your parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). If you are SNS dominant, you are stuck in what is known as your fight or flight part of your nervous system. WHOOP will show you this, letting you have a few looks into various biofeedbacks, which are insights into your body's ability to handle stress known as your allostatic load.
This insight from your HRV score, resting heart rate (RHR), and respiratory rate all go into in your bodies ability to recover, which is scored as red, yellow, and green by WHOOP. This allows a user to easily see where they are in terms of recovery, which helps you better plan your workouts in terms of intensity to make sure you do not overdo it while also considering perhaps more significant nutritional support as micronutrients -minerals and vitamins - help your HRV.
Here are A few things I can tell you about my HRV scores and how I improved mine.
My consistent sleep and wake time mattered in terms of recovery. The more consistent I stayed with my typical bedtime, which is 730pm, the more green recoveries I saw. I stayed up later on Friday and Saturday nights like the rebel I am, and while I might have averaged more time in bed, my sleep showed less in terms of DEEP sleep. I started digging in and discovered that you get most of your DEEP sleep at the beginning of the night, based on your circadian rhythms. That made sense because usually, I am tired around 715pm and just fight it. Noted and addressed.
The next thing I began to understand was just how important sleep was for me and how trashed my rest really was. I almost admit these numbers because, well, I am a fitness professional, but my sleep has always been awful. I blame it because it is cool to blame something for some problem you have nowadays, but my blame goes to hospital life from age 8 till 15. For those 6-7 years, I endured 10+ surgeries to walk again. Needless to say, your body gets trained, so train it well, and I never ever thought to look at my sleep until I read some scary studies.
The studies were about Alzheimer's disease and what contributes to this disease. My nana had Alzheimer's, and it was a rather sad way to watch someone die slowly losing the one thing each of us coverts more than anything - our memories and our ability to decide things for ourselves.
Poor sleep was shown to be a contributor to Alzheimer's. So what was the first thing I freaked out over when my rest was recorded after a few days, and I was able to see some trends?
My sleep was god awful. Disgusting. I felt robbed and, worst of all, a failure for being so into health and shit while failing to understand my own piss poor sleep.
So with the trends I was seeing, I came to understand through various continuing education reads, classes, and courses that in HRV land, the reason my HRV was sucking a lot was due to my poor sleep.
I was nowhere near the 15-20%DEEP and 15-20% REM scores you want to see. I was more like 5-8% DEEP and 8-15% for REM.
It was awful.
I immediately might or might not have panicked over this, thinking my brain as already turning to mush, and my heart filled to the brim with plaque due to all the inflammation my body created from the lack of DEEP sleep for what was decades of awful sleep.
Teetering steadily at the brink of shame and worry, I decided to just take the news like Macho Man would and snap into fixing some shit.
I decided to keep my awake time and sleep time consistently day in and day out with little variance of over an hour of sleeping later if I could make it work in my schedule.
I am a guy who loves his routines. I am up by 330am. I read 50 pages, perform 45 mins low-intensity recumbent biking, and have a coffee all before 5am. On Wednesday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, I wake no later than 5am. This has helped me with my recovery when I can get some extra sleep time. This is with me keeping my going to bedtime very consistent between 730-830pm. The mornings I sleep in from 330am to 5am, I usually go to bed closer to 830pm. Keeping my wake and sleep times within an hour window or so either way, I find I wake up more recovered with fewer aches, pains, and best of all, brain fog.
I touched on the morning habits, but my nighttime habits became equally as important, which was a key piece I was missing. I would come home around 615pm or 630pm with an hour to eat, unwind, and prepare for the next day. I was legit facing having 1 hour to do all these things, stressing me out on even building a nighttime routine.
I decided to bring my last meal to the gym on the nights I work, just 3 a week. I would make sure my dinner time was always 2 hours before bedtime. After reading numerous studies, it was apparent eating right before bed is not a good thing. You want to give your body two hours or so to breakdown food. Why? Because when you eat, your heart rate increases a few beats, your body heats up, and your digestion system is doing some serious work. How this impacts your sleep is the cooler you are and the lower your heart rate is before bed, meaning you are shifted into the rest and digest branch of your nervous system (PNS), the more inclined you are to get into deep restorative sleep quicker and earlier on in your sleep cycle. This was low hanging fruit and not hard for me to implement.
The next thing I put into play was a pair of blue light blocking glasses. I like to think I make wearing these kinds of glasses sexy, but no, it is strictly for performance enhancement, not for looks. But if you want some stylish ones, I recommend raoptics.com as they had the best reviews in terms of product quality. Spend the money and get quality ones as the 20 dollar ones on Amazon just are not the same, sorry.
Why would you want to wear blue light blockers? Well, blue light stimulates the hormone cortisol, which is a stress hormone. High cortisol levels at night are something I see more and more of with clients I work with. Cortisol has to come down at night for the hormone melatonin, which is one badass hormone you want to increase. Melatonin is one helluva antioxidant. It helps aid your body in the repair and recovery process. The more extended cortisol levels stay elevated, the more hormone imbalances you will see from insulin levels to sex hormone levels. Being stuck in this fight or flight state in an endless loop is what helps break your body down.
Think of how much blue light exposure you get from your TV, phone, tablet, and it is not hard to surmise that this an easy one-time purchase fix that will have an immediate impact on your sleep by allowing your body to stay on a regular bedtime and wake time which will translate to better sleep due to cortisol allowing to drop as your body naturally prepares for sleep. Make the purchase, thank me later.
The final two things I did was take a night time supplement to bring down my cortisol levels. The other was investing in something free. That was a nightly breath program.
Before bed, I begin a breathing pattern known as box breathing.
Box breathing is where you breathe in for 4 seconds, hold for 4 seconds, and exhale for 4 seconds, wait 4 seconds (do not inhale here), and now begin again with breathing in.
This technique has been shown to shift your body out of a fight or flight state and activate the rest branch of your nervous system. Being moved into a relaxed state before bed helps bring down cortisol, prepare your body for rest, and allows your body to chill, not thinking an imminent threat is lurking.
I found this had some effect on improving my HRV. It also worked better for me if I would hold for 6 seconds and exhale over 6 seconds instead of 4. When I felt agitated, I would do this, and it would do the trick of helping me relax quicker than I was getting out of the 4-second hold and exhales I was doing.
Doing these things added up big time for me in terms of the improvements I was feeling daily. Brain fog was fading, I felt refreshed when I woke up, My ability to handle stress had returned, but I felt great best of all.
I began waking up naturally without an alarm day in and day out. Do you know how awesome it is to not be jarred awake by an alarm clock? I do. It is a peaceful way to begin anyone's day, that is for sure.
My energy levels were very consistent, and my mid-day dip in energy all but disappeared. My memory improved, and my patience grew some extra padding to it.
But best of all, I felt healthy AF. I could not get over how much better I felt and felt day after day. I was sleeping better than I ever had. My anxiety was at bay, and my mind was as straightforward as it had been in what seemed like forever.
My body changed by focusing on improving my sleep and my quest to not keel over dead too early for my taste. I began taking on a leaner look due to being less inflamed because I was recovering from my workouts now better than ever. So many damn wins I am tired of writing about them.
If you walk away with anything from this article, it is this: If you really want to look and feel better, sometimes the answer is not found in some diet program or exercise program, but instead found in other things as I hoped to have shown you in this article.
Sleep, recovery, and stress management, while not as sexy as that influencer's nutrition or workout program is equally as crucial as your diet and exercise plan.
The key to better health and fitness is understanding how your body handles everything you are throwing at it. This is where HRV monitoring is helpful. I encourage you to take my advice in this article and see for yourself how much better you feel by doing some of the things I did to improve my sleep, HRV, and life quality. You can thank me later. 🙂
About Jeff Black
Jeff is a nationally recognized health and fitness coach, public speaker, podcast host for The Excellence Cartel, owner of Iron House Strength & Conditioning, bodybuilder, and Osteogenesis Imperfecta Advocate. He is also a roundtable expert on IntenseMuscle.com.
Today, Jeff works collectively with some of the top coaches in the health and fitness space presenting to other coaches and individuals on health and fitness. He has a passion for leadership and serving others to help them be their own hero. He is recognized for his results, but above all else, the passion he has for the coach’s heart he holds dear.