How To ❤️

(Screen grab from a project by @justintimmer)

I’m designing a master class to teach self-tracking and personal science with a focus heart related questions and heart rate as a signal. The promise of the course is to provide a step-by-step, accelerated program that takes participants from question to discovery in 10 weeks. As well the specific discovery that’s the focus of the individual’s workshop learning, the course is designed to teach a foundational skills in using empirical methods in daily life.

I have a list of topics and tools that will be at the core of the course.

  1. Protean HR: Why HR is so versatile for addressing personal health questions, both about cardiovascular health and fitness training specifically and about a wide range of concerns such as mood, allergy and auto-immune conditions, digestive health, and sleep.
  2. Physiological primer. (Good to have a sense of how different systems are connected, esp. heart and nervous system)
  3. Translating personal health concerns into answerable empirical questions, and how to take advantage of HR to design powerful self research.
  4. Choosing exactly what to track, setting a protocol, testing, and observing.
  5. Reasoning with time series data.
  6. Translating insights into actionable discoveries.

There’s a lot of detail in here that I’ll spare you. BUT, I want to ask for some help, because I’m concerned about being biased by my own specific interests and missing important questions I should address. I know a lot of people here have tracked HR in relation to various projects, and we’ve discussed lots of details in other threads. But if you can remember what barriers you faced, and especially what questions you still don’t have a good answer to, I can see about addressing them in the course. (I’ll do my thinking in public so maybe a benefit of sharing your unsolved problems/questions is that I can help find the answer.)

What do you want to know about self-research using HR?


The biggest barrier is that freaking everything affects heart rate. Just last week for example all the spring flowers came out in my city and hay fever has struck and my HR is going bananas because my hay fever is so severe I can hardly breathe through my nose and I’m having to take a boatload of antihistamines. I track my heart rate for other reasons so I can see just by eyeballing it that it’s a bunch higher than normal - that doesn’t actually affect the purpose I’m tracking for, but if I were using the actual numbers it would have totally torpedoed my data by probably being a larger effect than the one I was actually trying to measure.

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I have questions about maximum heart rate (HRmax) and heart rate variability (HRV).

Please correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe HRmax is basically defined as the fastest that one’s heart beats when that person is exercising as hard as they can (e.g., while running an incline on a treadmill). While that sounds logical and is certainly a pragmatic way to approach it, I wonder whether that is actually the fastest that one’s heart is capable of beating (non-pathologically). Frankly, I’m a little skeptical. Is it possible that during such a test, the heart could beat faster, but just doesn’t need to? I suspect that if I were to take a treadmill test like that, I would be more limited by my lungs’ ability to take up oxygen and dump CO2 than by my heart’s ability to pump faster.

On a related note, I’ve heard high HRV described as a loose but healthy balance between sympathetic and parasympathetic inputs leading to high beat-to-beat variability in a well-functioning heart with ample capacity. In a heart that is not functioning as well or is approaching the limit of its abilities, the tension between sympathetic and parasympathetic inputs rachets up, and the time between beats can’t jump around as much (the heart switches from “dancing” to “marching” or “running”). If there’s anything to this, would that suggest that a fast-beating heart that nonetheless has a high variability might still have excess capacity to go even faster?

Maybe this is outside the scope of what you plan to discuss in your class, but I wanted to at least bring it up. Thanks!

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Thank you both for this excellent set of questions.

@Jeshyr : Can you say more about what you are using HR for, when it isn’t being blown up by allergies?

@rickroyphd You write:


I only have access to the abstract of this paper at the moment but I think it supports your idea: Evidence and Possible Mechanisms of Altered Maximum Heart Rate With Endurance Training and Tapering

From the paper:

Some of the proposed mechanisms for changes in HRmaxthat may occur with aerobic training include autonomic (extrinsic) factors such as plasma volume expansion and enhanced baroreflex function, while some nonautonomic (intrinsic) factors are alteration of the electrophysiology of the sinoatrial (SA) node and decreased ß-adrenergic receptor number and density.

On your HRV question: I think you may be suggesting that HRV could be signal of “excess capacity.” However, from my understanding of the physiology and also this history of HRmax, the concept of excess capacity may not be well enough defined to test.

I am bedridden with severe ME/CFS so I have very very little energy, I use what we call “heart rate pacing” (pacing as in “keeping correct pace” rather than the other meaning) to make sure I don’t do too much and make myself sicker. If my heart rate is too high right now (on a minute-by-minute level), I need to back off and breathe a bit and do whatever I’m doing more slowly or with more tiny breaks in between the “action” (“action” in quotes because it might be something as small as typing, reading, or talking to someone on the phone).

If I keep my heart rate more-or-less below the rate that works for me (everybody’s is different, mine seems crazy low because I am on meds that modify my HR but it works for me) I can get a lot more done - analogous to the way a marathon runner can cover a lot more distance before exhaustion than a sprinter can.

Here’s an article about the general way this heart rate tracking for energy use works - Using A Heart Rate Monitor to Prevent Post-Exertional Malaise in ME/CFS - Solve ME/CFS Initiative

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I have been wondering about HRV DFA1 as a consistent measure of heart function. I think power output during exercise at a specific DFA1 value would be a good measure to gauge changes in your body.

Jeshyr, have you considered using DFA1 as a measure of when you are over exercising?

I also believe it would be possible to measure the transfer function relating HRV and breathing to get another measure of body performance. I have seen my HRV change significantly when I switched from my typical breathing routine to a very specific breathing approach that captures my heart rate changes.

Thanks for the link, Gary. If anybody wants to download full versions of academic papers without paying super exorbitant fees, there are a variety of options. One should first check whether the paper is already freely available from the publisher’s website, of course. If it isn’t, some people will immediately go to Sci-Hub, where they can probably download a copy illegally. One of the legal alternatives is to create an account on ResearchGate, where there’s a good chance that one can request a copy of the paper directly from the author, who is allowed to provide copies to individual requesters on a “fair use” exemption:
Evidence and Possible Mechanisms of Altered Maximum Heart Rate With Endurance Training and Tapering (at ResearchGate)

There are several other legal alternatives as well, or you may want to just use the tried-and-true Inter-Library Loan system.

FWIW, the complexity of rules regarding access to scientific publications is surprising and/or disappointing to almost everybody.

I’m learning a lot from this discussion. Thank you!

@rickroyphd I haven’t gone through the access hoops for Evidence and Possible Mechanisms of Altered Maximum Heart Rate With Endurance Training and Tapering (at ResearchGate), but in the meantime if you read the paper and it’s very useful will you post a key point or two?

@Jeshyr A few years ago Jacki Wheelwright gave a talk that reminds me of your project: She used a Fitbit to manage her chronic condition by insuring that she stayed below a max # of steps per day. But I’ve never seen HR used as a pacing measure allowing observations at much shorter time intervals, so that you can pace yourself in immediate daily activities like conversations. This is a remarkable idea. I read the explanation at the link: Using A Heart Rate Monitor to Prevent Post-Exertional Malaise in ME/CFS - Solve ME/CFS Initiative. I hope you have time for a few questions:

  • How did you determine your Anaerobic Threshold (AT)
  • What device are you using to track your HR?
  • How do you set the alarms? Do they go from your wearable to your phone, or does the wearable give you the signal directly.
  • How long do you typically wait to recover before returning to an activity? Have you learned any best practices for keeping the alerts at a minimum?

I think you have some knowledge from experience that could be really useful to others, including several people I know who continue to struggle with fatigue following COVID-19 infection.

@OP_Engr, DFA1 was a measure I had never heard of. I did some searching and reading, and this article seemed to give the clearest practical explanation: How To Use Heart Rate Variability DURING Training Using DFA-alpha1 to determine aerobic threshold. (If you look at it and find problems, will you tell me?) The key points for me were:

  • DFA stands for Detrended Fluctuation Analysis; that is, an analysis of variation in HRV. There are options in how this can be calculated. The “1” represents a calculation approach appropriate for exercise because it measures changes at the scale of a few minutes.
  • DFA1 values above a certain threshold are associated with low intensity exercise, while DFA1 values below this threshold are associated with moderate or high intensity exercise. This distinction can be relevant to optimizing training.
  • Importantly DFA1 can be measured with consumer equipment: Polar or Gramin HR strap (or other high quality instrument), and HRV Logger app. (This is @Marco_Altini again)
  • There is also a good reference in this piece for technical details. It is over my head mostly but possibly useful to others: Nonlinear Analysis of Heart Rate Variability: A Comprehensive Review | de Godoy | Journal of Cardiology and Therapy

I had to look up transfer function to make sure I was on the right track while reading this. If I understand correctly, @OP_Engr is suggesting using DFA1 to explore whether breath patterns during activity are taxing your energy. (Is this what you’re suggesting?) This seems complicated given the requirement to use ECG rather than optical measures, but at the same time it’s an intriguing suggestion because it’s possible something important could be learned in a short time, perhaps just a few hours.

I read this to mean that changed your breathing based on what you saw in real time in your HRV data, using HRV as feedback—is that right?

@Agaricus HR pacing is becoming really common inside the ME/CFS community because it’s so accessible. Workwell Foundation have been doing great scientific research on it too. So I don’t really perceive any of this as “my” knowledge - it’s almost all things I’ve learned from others in the ME/CFS community apart from the stuff that’s very specific to me :slight_smile:

This Physios for ME document has some more basics on the topic and a lot of other useful links (including to support communities), but note that their specific calculation on how to determine your AT is out of date now:

This newer document lists Workwell’s recommendation of 15bpm above resting HR:

I actually use a lower value of 8bpm above HR because I’m on a lot of meds which blunt my HR response to activity (beta blockers, Florinef, Coralan, Midodrine) because my hypotension and POTS are so severe. So even with the meds my HR still goes up from 60 to 80 or higher when I stand and walk slowly to the bathroom, but when I’m just doing something and staying horizontal - like eating or typing this or talking to someone - trying to stay under 68bpm is useful.

I use an Apple Watch with the Heart Graph app for alarms, it is set up with audio alarms on my watch, but what I actually find most helpful is that I stream the phone screen to my Mac so I can see the graph in real time - no points for guessing I went to the bathroom at 11:40-11:44 :joy::

There’s no specific time for waiting, but I try to wait until my heart rate is back down under 66 or 64 and also stable there. Because it goes up and down a lot of course, so if you just wait until the first time a downward spike gets under the number you want then it’s going to immediately go back up and it doesn’t help. You have to wait until it stays under the number mostly and doesn’t pop back up as soon as you lift up a hand.

Also I found the longer you wait, the more stable it seems although I’m not sure if that’s just an illusion (I imagine it as my sympathetic nervous system chilling out but I have no idea if that’s biologically valid)? But it seems like it takes a larger amount of activity to “shift” heart rate if it’s been at a certain value for longer - taking into account that we’re talking about very very very tiny activities here that I suspect wouldn’t really affect normal people’s HR much at all.

When I’m waiting for it, I do mindful breathing exercises mostly, because it stops me going crazy from boredom and also helps my HR to stabilise faster. I also have one of those “take a break” apps on my Mac (Dejal Time Out) which forces me to stop and rest 1 minute every 13 minutes, and 10 minutes every hour regardless of HR, which helps stop me getting caught up with things and doing too much.

It’s massively annoying and takes a boatload of willpower to make myself rest in the middle of wanting to do stuff, but 20 years of experience tells me I can do a lot more stuff in total if I do it in small chunks in between rests, so mostly I do them as planned. Balancing physical needs and psychological needs is hard!!

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Just a quick thank you for taking the time to answer so thoroughly. Reading through the links and learning, also the great material at Not Done Living.

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