Tag Archives: Heart Rate Variability

Ending Two Years of Quantifying Myself

My first blog post on self-quantification was April 6th, 2014. I went pretty hard at it for the last two years spending a fair bit of money and doing experiments of various kinds to see how my body would react. My favorite was taking heart rate variability readings while having a tooth drilled at the dentist. After a fair number of insights, I’m ending two years of quantifying myself.

 

Ending Two Years of Quantifying Myself

It is not really a full retirement as I will continue to monitor things as I did before this two year period. As a runner and triathlete, I was monitoring my heart rate many years before entering the QS scene. So monitoring various mood states and body reactions like heart rate variability will continue. I get a lot from it.

What I am retiring is the identity of “scientific publisher of N=1 studies” and being a “quantified-self guy.” As part of this identity I was regularly publishing this blog, tweeting, leading a QS Meetup and attending the big QS conferences. There was a specific discipline around that and I’m going to let that go.

The overall lessons I learned after these two years:

  • You can learn anything you want with the internet resources available. I started as a guy curious about stress readings and got pretty conversant with heart rate variability to the point of being a junior partner in presentations with friends who were PhD’s on the subject.
  • The summary finding on all my outcomes is if we human beings get a good nights sleep, drink plenty of water, eat a modest amount of calories, exercise with regularity and hang out with other people we like, we feel pretty good most of the time. My grandmother told me that years ago but I had to use  science to validate it.
  • A lot of Quantified Self is Quantified Storytelling. At QS EU #15 Doctor James Heathers coined this phrase as he pointed out that the controls are the problem. In a noisy environment achieving any level of control is extremely difficult. And doing the math with any sense of sufficient data can absorb your time for extended periods. With a lot of noise and smaller data sets, we have to push our story a bit more as not having a result is not very compelling, particularly if you are presenting to groups by blog or presentation.
  • The only negative finding I had is that I suspect the entire supplements industry is a massive exercise in commercial placebo. I did not get any meaningful results from any of the supplements I tried that were not overshadowed by sleep, water, and food (see bullet #2).
  • The body is incredibly resilient. Our story that one night out indulging will ruin our health is just wrong. I had several physically stressful periods result in heart rate variability and blood pressure readings that were virtually unchanged from non-stressful periods. The underlying physical system is very stable and completely separate from, our beliefs about it.
  • People want to read about brands and ultimately Google drives traffic to a blog, people don’t seek you out based on the quality of content. The two biggest drivers to this blog were when I indexed posts in Google that talked about Apple Watch and another service that was getting good press. Both drove big spikes in traffic and in my opinion were halfway to product reviews. That Apple Watch mention still drives traffic. It is just the facts on being a publishing type. The people want to read the reviews that helps them buy stuff.
  • Our stories and beliefs about our condition are the entirety of our experience of our condition and thus, are our condition. Quantified Self is a place of stories and beliefs with data to enrich them. Studies have to  be conceived, data gathered and the results analyzed. And if we declare success in altering heart rate variability through head position then we must have the story that a changed heart rate variability is desirable. When you get to that level, it is an arbitrary definition of what is good.  Most of my QS work lived under an umbrella of some form of story. The story is the thing.

I remain a supporter of Quantified Self and its unique place in a history of technical change and its contribution to the continued dynamic way we use technology to shape our behavior. QS as a separate and unique group was big when it was kind of hard to get the data together and you had to rig your own sensors. Now we all are starting to live with easy data capture and quantification. The QS community becomes all of us.

The study I did on my To Do List was one that really altered my perspective. When I let my to-do list go and watched what things I started doing naturally from a place of interest, QS matters were not part of the mix. My interests had moved on, and doing things from a place of fascination and interest is the story I want to write. And the story is the thing.

Sign up for the QuantXLaFont Newsletter
Get our lifestyle tips and studies delivered to your inbox.
Thank you! We don't spam :)

OM Signal Shirt on the Slopes

I took my OM Signal shirt on the slopes at Breckinridge for the Thanksgiving weekend. This short post is attributed to a full weekend spent on the slopes and not shuffling through mounds of data nor posting my regular blog. I had a good time with family and friends:

OM Signal Shirt on the Slopes

I had gotten an OM Signal shirt as part of its initial launch last summer. Though it was a bit overdue (about a year) and the shirt chased me via post from London to San Francisco to Denver I never gave up on it because they tried really hard to make it right.

The first shirt was like a compression shirt that constricted your chest, terribly uncomfortable. This is not that shirt, but this is what it felt like:

OM Signal Shirt on the Slopes I tried to run with it…once. It was just too uncomfortable. So my two OM Signal shirts sat the summer out in my sports kit drawer.

Fast forward to the late summer and OM Signal helpfully sent me another shirt at no cost. This is the shirt I took skiing. Unlike the first one, this same sized shirt was very comfortable. There is a band inside the shirt at chest level, but it felt fine to the point that I didn’t even notice it. The rest of the shirt is form fitting, but not noticeable either. So huge improvement and thumbs up to OM Signal for the improvement.

Here are two plus hours of skiing at Breckinridge:

OM Signal Shirt on the Slopes

You can see the ski runs pretty clearly. And the breaks. I was intrigued by the respiration rate as OM Signal is the only integrated product I know of that has both heart rate and respiration for a sporting environment.

Looking at how to use the quantification to improve performance, I think the respiration might be an indicator of calmness while skiing. That may not be true, but worth a look.

The app is clean and has a nice interface. Of equal quality to a Jawbone or Fitbit. I would prefer it less structured and I realize I am not center of the bell curve for users.

So no real quantified self goodness in this post, just a report on my OM Signal shirt and a bit of time on the slopes. You will hear more about the shirt as I am now intrigued and will do some additional tests. Comments and ideas are always welcome.

 

Getting In The Zone at Work Using HRV

The Impending Quantified Workplace

There was an article in Bloomberg this week about UK companies measuring employee’s heart rate and other biomarkers to determine if traders were getting in the zone. It suggested in the future we will see corporate workers measured like professional athletes.

Getting In the Zone

The concept makes sense on the face of it. If you can improve an athlete’s performance by measuring output, a similar measuring of performance should be applicable in business. The problem in the business setting is the lack of clarity around what the improved outcome might be. A 100m dash sprinter has one number they are improving, the finish time. All measurements and interventions revolve around that number. In more complex sports there are multiple metrics, all are clear and measurable.

What is the Worker’s Goal Line?

For the worker in business, what is the equivalent? Take the case of the construction worker. Would we look at strength, hand-eye coordination or compliance with instructions? Or the retail clerk. Would they be measured in pleasant demeanor, speed of button strokes at the cash point or sales presentation? When we move to knowledge worker the potential measurements become much more elusive. Is the programmer’s ability to create a complex solution driven by cognitive ability, knowledge or access to good tools?

In each of these cases taking heart rate and heart rate variability (HRV) seems very far away from finding the relevant connection to the drivers of performance. I have been working on this for some time, having writing 15 blog posts about different interaction performance tests I have done at work. When I started with Quantified Self, my hypothesis was to see if I could improve negotiation outcomes using a physiological training plan similar to how a runner would prepare for a marathon. To test the idea I measured HRV in 86 different meetings of various types. Very few of my interventions had any impact on outcomes.

An Example of the Challenge

Here is a specific example of how difficult it would be to have access to biometric data from an employee and make sense of it. This is real data. Say you were my boss and our company’s biosensing device gave you these two graphs. In the first, I was meeting with you and several of your peers. The blue lines are that period of the meeting where I was in Vapor Lock and not at my mental best.

Getting In the Zone

 

The second graph shows my physiology ten minutes later as I was brainstorming with a colleague. Very few blue lines.

Getting In the Zone

How would you counsel me to improve? What do these graphs even say? Was I not “in the zone” with the you and your colleagues and “in the zone” with my colleague? In a world where performance feedback is hard enough to conduct already, you can see how there will need to be a very significant new framework to make sense of data like this.

So the London traders can keep measuring heart rates and perhaps achieve some improved performance. For the construction worker, the retail clerk and the programmer we have a long way to go. In my study from which I pulled the graphs I did draw a conclusion about how to prepare for meetings like that with the Big Bosses.

***

I would encourage you to try a small work study of your own. Hop over to QuantXLaFont and have a look at how to use a short break before a meeting with the Breath Sync app. You can start measuring your performance and explore this brave, new and complex world.

***

Randomized Test – Booze Amount vs. HRV

After my last Booze test I wanted to find out the limit of how much alcohol I could drink and have it not impact my Heart Rate Variability (HRV), Muse % Calm score and Glucose level. In a scientific study I had seen that 2 drinks is a limit of what men can drink and have it not effect their HRV. I thought I would give it a whirl by conducting a randomized test.

martini

 

My Question

If I have three alcoholic drinks in an evening does it significantly change my morning HRV and mental calm readings?

What I Did

For twenty days I would either drink three drinks in an evening, or none. To ensure this was a randomized test I used a randomly generated instruction for which days I would drink and which I would not. It made for some funny Tuesday evenings and some less than social Fridays, but science must be served.

How I Did It

I used a Google Spreadsheet to generate a random list of instructions for the twenty day period with an output of “zero” or “three.” Each evening I would either have the drinks or not.

The following morning I would measure my mental calm using Muse EEG headset and my HRV using a Polar H7 heart rate belt that sent data to an app called the Heart Rate Variability Logger. All data went into the same Google spreadsheet.

At the end of the twenty days, I separated the lists into two arrays based on the amount of alcohol and ran a T-Test using the Google Spreadsheet. For days where there was an unusual circumstance (odd food consumption, travel, drinking neither 3 nor 0) I threw out those measurements.

What I Learned

Drinking three drinks in the evening does not significantly affect my HRV, % Calm or Glucose levels the following morning. After separating the data and running the T Test, here were the resulting p values:

Measure p values
HRV 0.326
% Calm 0.551
Glucose 0.529

For any of the measures to have been significantly impacted the p value would have needed to be .05. So I found a level at which I could have a social drink and not impact my physiology significantly. Anecdotally, on the mornings after 3 drinks mornings I felt fine so my experience matched the results.

Launching QuantXLaFont

I have had enough people ask me how to start doing these studies that I have created a site specifically to help people do these types of N=1 studies. You can get the basic instructions absolutely free and can pay for coaching if you would like. The mission is to support people in taking their own data and testing the dimensions of their own unique physiology.

 

Reader Poll: Name that Freak Out State

I have prepared my speech for the Quantified Self 2015 Conference and have one last finishing touch to do and I thought I would reach out for your help. The speech is about stress states while interacting with colleagues. I have used many words in this blog to describe this stress state before to include terms like Upset and Parasympathetic Flatline. But these terms don’t capture those electrifying moments where things just freeze. Let’s name that freak out state.

Name that Freak Out State

What I am trying to describe is more specific in the social environment and the term needs a little punch. It is that state brought on by any trigger that puts your body in the Fight/Flight mode at that exact moment you actually need your brain. It is the moment when all your blood moves to the back brain, hands and feet getting you ready to physically respond to danger. And you are sitting in a conference room. It is freezing up when you talk to the boss. Going blank when you get on stage to speak to a group. Those terrifying moments when you can’t recall simple facts you know you have in your memory.

I would like to get your input on a good term that captures this state in a vibrant way. The term the group likes most I will use my in QS15 speech and will start using to describe this state hereafter. Let’s crowdsource a term and see if it sticks. To the poll:

Fort-Six Meditations

I was pulling data yesterday preparing my speech for the Quantified Self Conference & Expo. I have been collecting heart rate variability (HRV) readings since October during conversations with work colleagues. My hypothesis was that I could train myself to be like a conversational ninja and outwit people using my physiology.

ConvoNinja

I had to ensure I could bring myself to a relaxed state by practicing sitting in a meditative state each morning for five minutes. l talk about the value of this in my tutorial post “By Yourself – Basic Training.”  I wanted to train myself to get to calm in five minutes or less.

For these sessions, I use Heartmath emWave pro because it has a very clear interface. It uses an ear clip that ties to software on my laptop and this is the dashboard I see during the session:

Slide1

I can see my HRV wave on the top part of the screen and get a score on how I am doing on the bottom. I don’t recommend the emWave pro based on its high price. You can use a phone-based app for the same five-minute session. But I have one so I use it.

In prepping the speech, I pulled the data on 46 meditative sessions to see if I was getting fight/flight readings when I was purposely downshifting my physiology. These sessions were spread out over multiple months and consisted of 17,872 heart beats. I analyzed these beats looking for fight/flight incidents using a technique I outline in my HRV Tutorial. The number of fight/flight incidents?

bagel

That’s right, zero. Over all of those sessions, I did not have a single incident of extended fight/flight during those sessions. So I had in my Basic Training learned how to bring myself to a relaxed and refreshed state very consistently.

I’ll be talking how I wove this training into my conversational experiences as part of my speech for the conference. I’ll also be rehearsing this speech this Wednesday at the first Denver Quantified Self Meetup. If you are in the area stop on by.

Facing the Big Boss

Have you every had to give a briefing to the Big Boss, the Boss above the person you report to? And in that have you ever gotten this look?

Uhappy Big Boss

And when you got that look your brain just froze? You could not think of what to say? The start point for my work in Quantified Self was to try and understand that “freeze” phenomenon and how to train myself to experience it less. I negotiate a lot for business and my hypothesis was that control of physiological reactions in meetings could make me a more effective negotiator.

I had an excellent opportunity to see how I was doing this week as I briefed not one, but SIX Big Bosses. Nine people total were in the room. One Boss had showed up uninvited because he opposed the concepts being discussed. And to make matters even more fun, I was told I was the primary presenter thirty minutes before the meeting. After hearing that I thought, “This will be a great HRV reading.”

The meeting was on a controversial topic and several of the Big Bosses did not agree on how to resolve it. I had been asked a few weeks earlier to help create a resolution. We were scheduled for an hour. There were two points in meeting I remember feeling the “brain freeze” moment and had to push on by looking at the slide and restarting my mental engine. Because of the late notice that I was the presenter I could not use my standard practice of memorizing the material prior to a high intensity presentation. Here is my reading for the session:

Slide1

This reading recalls the shape of the meeting very well. At the start each of Big Bosses tried to steer the meeting toward a resolution they thought was best. Big Bosses can’t help it, they get paid to steer. The Biggest Boss kept coming back to “let’s let him go through the material.” The dark blue from interval 426 to 2996 was me trying to get a word in edgewise.

In the middle of the meeting I had made my points and the Big Bosses began debating the merits of the resolution. As the spotlight moved from me I did deep breathing, listened and took notes. My memory of that period was that my brain was turned back on and I could feel a lighter feeling in my chest and head. The reading shows that I dropped from Fight/Flight as indicated by the white spaces from interval 2996 to around 6000.

Then the Biggest Boss said something to the effect that the resolution I had presented was incomplete. You can see around interval 6000 I go back into Fight/Flight as I was trying to explain how the missing part he was concerned with actually was completed. This lasted for a good period because other Big Bosses saw this as an opportunity to re-introduce their specific personal points and we were off and running. It was in this period I recall a specific “freeze” moment regarding a question on a detail that I resolved by having the group look at a different slide.

Finally I was able to get the Big Bosses to turn to the last slide where there was a collective “Oh, here it is” and you can see around interval 8900 my physiology begins to relax. The part of the resolution they were looking for was there. To my recollection the room relaxed as well. Some jokes where shared and people began to prepare to summarize and end the meeting.

During this hour long meeting I was in Fight/Flight 46% of the time, a full 27 minutes. I can’t reveal any details of the meeting, but I can believe that quality of my answers was more reactive and less thought out during those two periods. My personal variability training did make an important contribution as I was able to break up the 27 minutes into two periods that each had a specific topic I was “fighting” to make. In the first period I was concentrating on getting my main points across. Once done I was able to use my breathing and get myself to a relaxed state where I had ticked the box of “points made.” When the second period started I was only “fighting” to show the one completion point. I believe that if I had not allowed myself a completion state in the middle I would not have been as focussed on a single point which I was able to make in the end.

To see how much the environment like a meeting can change very rapidly, I had the opportunity to measure a meeting immediately after the meeting recorded above. As in I walked from the conference room for that meeting to the office for the meeting in a period of five minutes. I already had the kit ready so I just hit “record” for the second meeting.

In this second meeting I was brainstorming with a colleague on how to handle a problem that would play out over several months. There was no urgency, the colleague and I get on well and we were coming up with good ideas. Here is the reading:

Slide2

That means I came from a pretty intense Big Boss meeting where there was a lot of Fight/Flight, did a BreatheSync session for two minutes and entered the second meeting. In this one there was very little Fight/Flight at all and it was a very productive 35 minutes.

Breathing tools, understanding how the physiology reacts when meeting with the Big Bosses and finding the balance between Fight/Flight and relaxation can improve both how you prepare, and how you ramp yourself down when in an intense situation. And these same tools allow a fast transition to a new environment where you can be productive as appropriate for the situation.

I will be presenting more about how I use heart rate variability at the Quantifed Self Conference and Expo in San Francisco June 18 – 20. I look forward to it and I look forward to meeting many of you there.

Feedback While Training – Stayfit & Breathe Sync

When I started looking at Heart Rate Variability (HRV) as a tool to train myself I was drawing on my experience using heart rate monitors for physical training. When I went for a run I would see my heart rate in real time and adjust my exertion accordingly. I found this a powerful way to both increase my fitness and extend my training by not overdoing it.

Most of the apps today either lack context on the data they gather or give you a passive report on a past period of time. For example, the Jawbone UP tells you your steps but it is up to you to index that against other measures to see if you are improving your fitness. Multiple HRV apps will give you a coherence or stress reading after a session is complete. Two apps I am using now structure the feedback in ways that make the experience more interactive and provide good enough context for a user to take action in real time.

Stayfit by Marco Altini. I have just started using this app and really like it. It does not use HRV, but it creates very nice context by indexing resting heart rate against daily exertion. A quick measure of resting heart rate in the morning is very easy to do, then watching your exertion the rest of the day helps you work on fitness. The interface is very clean:

stayfit-app-pic

I find that I look at it often during the day to watch my kilocalories expended and make adjustments to my schedule and activities to increase exertion for the day. It is only available on iOS is its only drawback.

Breathe Sync by Michael Townsend Williams. I have written about this app in an earlier post and still have it as one of my go to apps. The reason is that its primary use case is to bring you back to a coherent and relaxed state very simply and quickly. It does give a measurment but that is a secondary part of the experience. The camera on your phone picks up your heart beats and then shows with a simple blue and white ring visual how your heart rate is slowing or speeding up as you see here:

breathesync-pic

Over the course of the session the ring visual will allow you to match your breath with the increase and decrease of the interval between heart beats. Very powerful and effective. I use it when I feel amped up or just prior to a meeting to get into a balanced place.

The context of indexing one measure against another in Stayfit and the very active intervention quality in Breathe Sync put them both on my daily use list. Ultimately I want to train myself to use awareness and respiration to set myself “in the zone” when it comes time to negotiate, interview and brainstorm in a professional setting. These two apps are great tools as I work on getting there.

Superpower Series: The Working Session

You can use measurements of your heart rate variability (HRV) to improve how effectively you concentrate when you work. When engaged in thoughtful work on your own and your prefrontal cortex is fully engaged your heart rate variability will be high enough that you will not show sustained stress. My experience applying techniques that kept me engaged yielded more output and I felt more relaxed when the session was over.

I had explored work session hygiene techniques in past work  that I called returning to poise. In those sessions I had discovered that I was more engaged and less stressed when:

  • I set aside a fixed period of time from 25 to 30 minutes,
  •  there was only one topic I focussed on for that period,
  • when I was distracted I used steady breathing to bring my attention back to my task,
  • the task at hand was the “right one” and no thoughts of being elsewhere intruded.

Here are four working sessions and how the measurements corresponded with how effectively I used the hygiene techniques. In all sessions I was working in the same office at roughly the same time of day. The topic was the same in all sessions, and I was working alone in the office on my computer doing planning for organizational alignment.

In the first session, I worked without using any of the hygiene factors. I simply put on the heart rate belt and worked. This is the graph of the session:

Slide1

You can see periodic stress points, where my sympathetic nervous system was firing and it is probable that my prefrontal cortex was not in full gear. I was not doing my best thinking. I logged that I was not sure there was not more important work I should have been doing. This distracted me, and I did not see good results.

Contrast this to a second session of similar length where the topic was important, I had the time set aside and was focussed. You can see the graph here:

Slide2

Far fewer periods where I was in fight/flight mode. It appears that my belief in the importance of the task reduced the amount of stress. In a 40 minute session again my concentration was high based on the belief I was working on the most important task possible and that I was in the “right place at the right time.”

Slide3

You can see that even for a longer session the number of fight/flight events were singular and fewer in number. The other hygiene techniques all were in place. The reason for the 40 minutes session was that I engaged enough that I blew right through the time limit.

Finally, I was able to have all the hygiene factors in place for a shorter session and in that I had no fight/flight incidents at all. Here is the graph:

Slide4

So when working alone it is possible to improve your concentration by developing techniques to keep yourself focussed. When so focussed, your HRV will reflect that you are physiologically in an state of complete engagement. And you will see much improved work output.

Heart Rate Belts, Phone Cameras and Convenience

I had a chance to have a coffee with Marco Altini, the builder of the Heart Rate Variability Logger app that I often use to take readings. I enjoyed the discussion as Marco is very knowledgeable on the topic of heart rate variability. I took some key insights away that will help me set direction for future studies.

During the discussion he told me he is focussing on his app that support physical training, HRV4Training. He prefers to work on this because in addition to a bluetooth heart rate belt the user can choose to take a reading with the camera on the phone. Marco thinks that the convenience of using the camera makes it more accessible.

I agree with him. In my own work I often to not take advantage of readings because I don’t have the belt on and simply don’t feel like putting it on. Just this week I did one reading while conducting an interview using the belt, and I did not take readings on numerous meetings that would have given me good data for further study.

And while pushing into new areas of study such as heart rate variability during negotiations, or while giving a speech, it is not going to work to have a finger on a smart phone camera. To only use the camera would confine readings to stationary sessions where no activity was allowed. There is much more to learn than taking readings in only a motionless state.

So I am going to start incorporating smart phone camera useage into my work and share the results here. Marco has done a workup of how his apps use the camera to compare well with the Polar H7. We have to figure out a way to make this accessible, and useful, so more people can train for improved personal performance using heart rate variability.