How much of your day do you feel that your body’s in stress vs. recovery mode? Whilst we can guess for ourselves, there is a way to take a more scientific approach via heart rate variability testing. I recently went through three days of this in the form of a Lifestyle assessment followed by a debrief with wellness accountant Gitana Gataveck. Here I share my learnings.
Why is this important?
To be at our best and achieve optimal performance in all aspects of life I truly believe we need adequate time to recover to avoid burnout. I often share the Corporate Athlete analogy in the workplace popularised by this great HBR article. Executives like elite athletes need adequate recovery time to perform at their best. How many times do we go from one project to the next without time to recover? If this was the case in elite sport going from race to race without any tapering or recovery you would soon burn out.
What is heart rate variability and how can it inform us?
Gitana described heart rate variability in simple terms of “how the heart opens,” the Firstbeat report states:
“Measurement of heart rate variability gives accurate information about your body’s stress reactions and recovery response as well as the intensity of exercise.
The goal is to find a balance between work and leisure and between activity and rest. It is not essential to eliminate stress, but to ensure sufficient recovery and find a manageable rhythm to life.”
Following the three days of testing with a First beat heart rate variability monitor I was given a debrief exploring how much time was spent in the red (stress), blue (exercise) and green (recovery) zones.
The process gave me some useful evidence to things I had a gut feel about:
Alcohol effects sleep recovery
Whilst I can feel that the quality of my sleep is affected by alcohol my results showed this clearly as you can see in this image. Gitana describes alcohol like a painkiller that numbs us making us feel relaxed when it actually has the opposite effect on the body. Whilst I will not be becoming tee total (I'm a big believer for everything in moderation) it has made me think do I really need that one or two drinks especially if I’m tired, knowing the effect it has on my sleep.
Lunchtime exercise reduces stress
This image shows the effect of me breaking up a day in the office with a lunchtime run. Proof to all the bosses out there that lunchtime exercise should be encouraged to help get people out of the stress zone into working those heart and lungs. As well as it being good for my body I find, whenever I head out for a lunch time run I come back with an insight that has a positive effect on my work too.
Mindfulness practice can quickly help you
Mindfulness practice gets me in the green zone and it doesn’t have to be an extended amount of it. This image shows me doing a 15-minute body scan in the morning, starting the day with some green zone recovery. One thing I love about the internet is that you can type in the length of guided mediation you’re after and find it. I recently found this half an hour body scan by mindfulness guru Jon Kabat-Zinn which is my current favourite.
Several other insights emerged from this experiment:
- Quality family time at home gets me in the green zone. Whilst I love quality family time at home I hadn’t explicitly thought that it would be helping me recover from stressors in life. My report clearly showed that quality time at home including morning snoozing / cuddles with the boys and relaxing on the couch watching a movie put me in the green zone. A lesson here, don’t feel guilty about that restful time, it might be just what your body needs!
- It’s the quality versus quantity of exercise that matters. Being a fulltime working mum my exercise quantity has dropped dramatically from pre baby ironman training. I call my training opportunistic and take the opportunities when I can to pump the heart and lungs for shorter 20-60 minutes sessions. In the debrief with Gitana it became evident how effective even the short 20 minute bursts were at exercising my heart and lungs and increasing my VO2 level.
- Going out to lunch doesn’t get me into recovery. I love catching up with friends for lunch for social connection and fun/laughter. One thing I discovered through my debrief is that this keeps me in the red zone and not into the green zone. When time is limited and I know the importance of exercise and recovery I think how can you incorporate this with your friends. I’ve started having some walking catch ups or a 30 minute meditation session followed by lunch. On a Saturday morning a group of us go to Pilates/Barre then have brunch.
Whilst the above are true for me, it’s important to note that one size doesn’t fit all and it’s important to discover the restorative activities that work for you. Gitana shared for some that returning home from work can be stressful on the body and watching horror movies. The beauty of the lifestyle testing is that you can try out a few things and see what works for you. My results showed I had increased green zone time on the weekend compared to the week.
So where to from here? A few of my actions / tips that might help inspire others if right for you:
- Get yourself an accountability buddy for lunchtime exercise / meditation
- Don’t feel guilty about pressing snooze if you feel like your body and mind need a rest
- Aim for at least 30 minutes in your workday of dedicated green zone time
- Check out the world's most in-depth piece of content on mindfulness that goes into what it is, who can use it, and some amazing free tools that you can use to help your practice.