CEO’s face challenges in their leadership roles most people simply do not understand. CEO’s serve multiple masters necessitating high-level, executive thinking and aggressive execution of predetermined plans across large and complex organizations.
These demands place a large and cumulative stress load on their bodies resulting eventually in reduced performance and potentially chronic disease. Fortunately, a solution exists to counterbalance the effects of job stress CEO’s face. The solution is heart-rate variability.
Experts, researchers, and doctors in the performance world are calling heart-rate variability (HRV) the best overall biometric. HRV training can help high-achieving CEO’s monitor their health, better manage their stress response, and achieve sustainable peak performance.
What are the benefits of improving HRV?
- Improved focus, resiliency and emotional control
- Improved immune function
- Stress is managed adaptively vs poorly
- Learning is enhanced through nervous system balance.
- Improved physical and mental performance
- Improved recovery
- Ability to fall asleep faster
Each of these benefits directly link to optimizing the performance and health of CEO’s facing the pressure to lead their organization effectively and deliver results to their board, investors and employees.
What is heart rate variability?
HRV is a measure of the time gaps between heart beats as you breathe in and out. Variability is your friend, rigidity your foe.
Your HRV score is an indicator of how stress affects your body. It’s also a measure of total load: sleep, nutrition, training levels, and mental and emotional stress. Finally, it’s a measure of resiliency, and this is where heartbeat flexibility comes in.
If you have poor (meaning low) HRV, your heartrate pattern is rigid. It’s like an old, inflexible rubber band; as stressors hit you, your heart is unable to flex with the stress, causing your “rubber band” to snap. Poor HRV is correlated with mental health disorders, poor emotional control and lower performance.
On the other hand, good HRV—meaning at or above the norm for your age—is characterized by a flexible heart rate. It’s akin to a long, new and stretchy rubber band, which means your heart can flex with stress, strengthening your resilience. Research has established that high HRV is associated with elite performance.
How to Improve HRV?
Improving HRV depends on the individual and his/her current health and fitness status. It is important that you have an accurate device to measure HRV and that you have someone who knows how to read it to give you the best chance of success.
The most common starting point is learning deep diaphragm breathing. This involves learning to engage your diaphragm, or belly area, to breathe in and out at a slower pace for a defined period. A good routine would be to complete five minutes in the morning when you first wake up, five minutes during the afternoon, and 10 minutes right before going to sleep.
In a literature review on HRV, research pioneers Paul Lehrer and Richard Gevirtz explain diaphragm breathing as part of a feedback loop that improves vagal nerve tone by stimulating the relaxation response of the parasympathetic nervous system.
Lehrer and Gevirtz reported that people with higher HRV showed lower biomarkers for stress, increased psychological and physical resilience, as well as better cognitive function.
Low HRV is correlated with nine of the 10 leading causes of death in the U.S. Additionally, a 2015 UC San Diego study reported that HRV may be a contributing factor for PTSD. The great news is that you can improve your HRV to help you combat any mental or emotional distress.
One important way to improve HRV is getting eight hours of sleep opportunity per night. The CEO lifestyle of extensive travel, early morning meetings and major client dinners present challenges to optimizing sleep. Sleep is a force multiplier, meaning it has a disproportionately positive impact on HRV and performance.
Furthermore, learning to reframe how you perceive stress or negative events can be impactful. One way to reframe is to start a gratitude practice by listing things that you are grateful for each day in a journal. Negative, fearful thoughts push us out of homeostasis and being chronically stressed depresses HRV, so reframing is essential.
Finally, improving fitness levels with a daily movement plan, when combined with good nutrition, proper hydration, breath-work, and gratitude, all lead to HRV improvement. The good news is you can improve your HRV by establishing new health habits over time.
Learning to improve your HRV is a core skill you can learn to take better control of your health. If you wear health monitoring technology, such as an Oura Ring, Fit Bit, or Apple watch, you receive information each morning which tells you if you should rest or if you can exert greater effort. If followed, this enables you to manage your overall load from stress, physical activity, and intensity of effort at work each day.
Observing and acting on the daily data will create a virtuous upward cycle in your performance.
Type A personalities hate time outs, learning to recover becomes a new grit skill for high achievers and its vital. Failure to manage stress has several negative health consequences. Individuals with an over stimulated stress response and poor HRV are at higher risk for diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, and cancer.
By mastering HRV and the practices that improve it, you are changing for the better your overall performance and future health.
Make diaphragm breathing and the other habits outlined above, core habits you practice every day for the rest of your life and literally transform your future health and performance trajectory!