Work-life balance

High Performance Careers: Don’t Ignore Your Fitness

In the drive for success, people in high-performance careers often end up neglecting their health. Whether you’re a trader dealing with the ups and downs of the market, a lawyer working long hours, or a corporate executive making big decisions, the demands of your job can easily push fitness to the side.

The irony is that the very attributes that drive success—discipline, focus, and resilience—are the same ones needed to sustain a healthy lifestyle. Yet, in the rush to meet deadlines, close deals, and outperform competitors, fitness often takes a back seat. Ignoring your health isn’t just bad for your body; it can also hurt your job performance. Studies show that regular exercise, good nutrition, and enough sleep are essential for thinking clearly, staying calm, and being productive over the long haul.

It’s sometimes easier to get a simple insight into your personal fitness level than you might think. One of the easiest and most effective ways to ensure you’re staying on top of your health is by monitoring your Heart Rate Variability (HRV). HRV is a valuable metric that reflects the state of your autonomic nervous system and overall cardiovascular health. It provides insights into how your body responds to stress, both physical and mental, and can be a powerful tool in optimizing your performance. By monitoring HRV (with good quality smart watches or other tools), you can better understand your stress levels, recovery needs, and fitness, which helps you make smarter choices about your workouts and lifestyle.

What is Heart Rate Variability (HRV)?

Heart Rate Variability (HRV) refers to the variation in time intervals between consecutive heartbeats. Unlike the regular rhythm of a metronome, a healthy heart does not beat evenly but instead has slight variations between beats. These variations are influenced by the autonomic nervous system (ANS), which has two main branches:

  • Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS)
  • Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS)

Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS)

The Sympathetic Nervous System is like your body’s alarm system. Imagine you’re walking in the woods and suddenly see a bear. Your body needs to react quickly to this potential danger. Here’s how the SNS helps:

  • Fight or Flight
    This system prepares your body to either fight the danger or run away from it. It’s often called the “fight or flight” response.
  • Increases Heart Rate
    To get ready for action, your heart beats faster. This helps pump more blood to your muscles, giving them the oxygen they need to move quickly.
  • Releases Adrenaline
    Your body releases adrenaline, a hormone that gives you an energy boost and makes you more alert.
  • Other Effects
    Your pupils dilate (get bigger) so you can see better, your breathing becomes faster to take in more oxygen, and non-essential functions (like digestion) slow down to save energy for immediate needs.

Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS)

The Parasympathetic Nervous System is like your body’s maintenance crew. After facing the bear and escaping to safety, your body needs to calm down and recover. Here’s how the PNS helps:

  • Rest and Digest
    This system helps your body relax and return to a calm state. It’s often called the “rest and digest” system.
  • Decreases Heart Rate
    Your heart rate slows down, which helps conserve energy and promotes relaxation.
  • Enhances Digestion
    Functions like digestion and nutrient absorption are prioritized. Your body can now focus on breaking down food and absorbing nutrients efficiently.
  • Other Effects
    Your breathing slows, and your muscles relax. Your body starts repairing itself and restoring energy levels.

How These Systems Work Together

Think of the Sympathetic Nervous System as the gas pedal in a car and the Parasympathetic Nervous System as the brake. When you need to speed up, the SNS kicks in. When it’s time to slow down and recover, the PNS takes over. A healthy balance between these systems is essential for overall well-being.

Why HRV Matters

Heart Rate Variability (HRV) measures how well these two systems (SNS and PNS) are balanced. A high HRV means your body is good at switching between the gas pedal and the brake, indicating good health and resilience. A low HRV might suggest that one system is dominating too much, which can be a sign of stress or potential health issues. By understanding and monitoring HRV, you can gain insights into how well your body is handling stress and recovery, helping you make better lifestyle choices to maintain good health.

Evaluation HRV

What is considered a high HRV and a low HRV?

Ages 20-29
  • High HRV: 60-100+ milliseconds
  • Average HRV: 50-70 milliseconds
  • Low HRV: Below 50 milliseconds
Ages 30-39
  • High HRV: 55-95+ milliseconds
  • Average HRV: 45-65 milliseconds
  • Low HRV: Below 45 milliseconds
Ages 40-49
  • High HRV: 50-90+ milliseconds
  • Average HRV: 40-60 milliseconds
  • Low HRV: Below 40 milliseconds
Ages 50-59
  • High HRV: 45-85+ milliseconds
  • Average HRV: 35-55 milliseconds
  • Low HRV: Below 35 milliseconds
Ages 60 and above
  • High HRV: 40-80+ milliseconds
  • Average HRV: 30-50 milliseconds
  • Low HRV: Below 30 milliseconds

Factors Affecting HRV

HRV naturally declines with age, so what is considered a high HRV in your 20s might be different from what is considered high in your 50s. Individuals with higher fitness levels typically have higher HRV, indicating better cardiovascular health and resilience to stress. Chronic stress can lower HRV, showing that your body is under strain and not recovering well. Similarly, good quality sleep can help improve HRV, while poor sleep can lower it. Additionally, certain health conditions like heart disease, diabetes, and chronic illnesses can significantly reduce HRV, highlighting potential underlying health issues.

Improving HRV While Maintaining a Busy Job

Improving your HRV is possible at any age through various lifestyle adjustments.

  • Regular exercise is crucial, involving both cardiovascular activities like running or cycling and strength training exercises to enhance overall fitness and cardiovascular health. Start with choosing two specific days, at which you promise yourself to exercise before- or after work, depending on your personal preference and sleep pattern.
  • Stress management techniques, such as meditation, deep breathing exercises, and mindfulness practices, can significantly boost HRV by promoting relaxation and reducing the negative impacts of chronic stress. You could enter a meeting room or have a walk outside to do this during working hours.
  • Maintaining quality sleep is essential; this means keeping a consistent sleep schedule, creating a calm and comfortable sleep environment, and avoiding stimulants before bedtime to ensure a proper rest.
  • A healthy diet also plays a vital role in improving HRV. Consuming a balanced diet rich in fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and healthy fats provides the necessary nutrients for optimal heart and nervous system function. At work, we’re often choosing for ‘easy food’, sometimes we crave for sugar. Proteins, aside of its health benefits, often reduce your cravings for food: have an easy protein shake instead of another Coca Cola at work.
  • Staying well-hydrated throughout the day is important, as dehydration can negatively affect cardiovascular performance and HRV. Is walking to the kitchen five times per day too much effort for you? Bring a bottle to work.
  • Prioritize time management and set boundaries between work and personal life to reduce chronic stress. Maintain healthy social interactions and relationships, which can positively impact HRV by reducing stress and promoting emotional well-being.
  • Finally, it’s essential to avoid overtraining by balancing intense workouts with adequate rest and recovery periods. This ensures that your body has enough time to heal and adapt, preventing chronic fatigue and promoting better HRV.

By integrating these practices into your daily routine, you can enhance your HRV and overall well-being, even while maintaining a busy job. Many smart watches make it possible to monitor your HRV values easily, so you can easily keep track of your overal fitness level.