Simon Wegerif is the founder of HRV Fit Ltd, a company which has introduced the heart rate variability (HRV) app, ithelete, that measures your HRV to measure recovery and track your fitness. Here I ask him a few questions about the company and the digital health landscape.
How did the idea of ithlete come about?
I read an article in a research digest called Peak Performance by coach and physiologist Eddie Fletcher that described how heart rate variability (HRV) could be used as an objective way to measure recovery and track fitness over time. I was interested in improving my own athletic performance, so started digging in to the subject and found there were literally thousands of research papers on HRV but no easy to use commercial products.
So with my background in consumer products and signal processing I decided to quit the day job and create a product that pretty much anyone could use. ithlete was the first consumer HRV product, and launched on the App Store at the end of 2009. We were also the first to figure out a way to get precise heartbeat data into the smartphone using our proprietary ECG receiver that fitted into the headset jack, making it quite universal.
Whats the feedback been like so far? What type of people are buying ithlete?
Feedback has been amazing. Once users get into the habit of spending just a minute doing their daily reading, they start to find ithlete useful very quickly, rely on it to help them know about their body, and even discover things about the impact of their current lifestyle that they didn’t realise before.
People buying ithlete include recreational athletes all the way up to Olympic medallists. Also a number of chiropractors and holistic health specialists value the simple and convenient HRV test to assess progress in their patients. Many apps are used only a handful of times, but judging by App Store and Google Play update stats, at least 2/3 of people who bought ithlete over the past 3 years are still using it, and we are up to nearly 10,000 users now in total.
Since we were the first to market with an easy to use, scientifically valid product, we also had a number of approaches from companies wanting to bring out their own branded versions.
We have now added an online portal, called ithlete Team that allows coaches to track many players simultaneously and make any training or selection decisions from their web browsers.
Although HRV has been around for sometime why do you think the sports and fitness worlds have only recently picked up on the benefits?
I think there has been more attention to the subject of recovery recently – more people realise that the magic of training occurs after the workout – that’s when your body adapts and becomes stronger. I also think the convenience of apps on the mobile phone and the whole quantified self-movement has helped. It always takes a while for new ideas to catch on – you need the visionaries to try the product for a while, realise that it works well, and they start recommending it to others.
At the very highest level the sport world has been utilising HRV for many years, however it wasn’t until more recently tools such as ithlete made this technology affordable and accessible to the wider market.
HRV is a good indicator of a person’s/athlete’s fatigue. In your view does HRV coherence training speed up the recovery process?
I do think that breathing deeply helps sportspeople achieve a calm state & focus before competing, but I have not seen the evidence that HRV coherence speeds up recovery, partly because I think the underlying physiology of coherence training is not well enough understood yet. I would like to see more good studies in this area, and ithlete would be a great tool to measure before and after different therapies, as has already been done with cold water immersion (showing a good level of improvement).
Higher HRV is said to be linked with not only better physical health but emotional health also, and has been shown to reduce stress-related illness. Is this something that you’ve found and agree with?
Yes. There’s a great book called ‘Why zebras don’t get ulcers’ by Robert Ziegler that explains the relationship between mental stress and physical illness. The sympathetic nervous system is strongly implicated as a villain when constantly activated. HRV is almost always reduced when this occurs, and higher HRV means the parasympathetic nervous system is more dominant, which is good for mental and physical health.
As someone who is involved in the digital health space how do you think it will evolve over the next five years?
There are already some strong players in the activity tracking space. I expect that apps and web portals will become more comprehensive so that multiple health parameters can not only be tracked but that cloud processing will allow trends and relationships to be identified with alerts to users when something is going in a certain direction. Of course I hope we will see HRV widely used as a ‘health barometer’ in the general population. The new v3.0 version of ithlete is already moving in this direction, with the addition of 6 commonly used subjective metric scales that allow users to identify the lifestyle factors most influential for them.
Finally, what’s next for ithlete? Anything you can share?
We’re talking to some big companies right now with a view to embedding ithlete technology in everyday products, and we are producing a single user version of the web portal called ithlete Pro that will allow users to visualize & analyse their data in more detail, as well as providing secure storage for their important data, and a way to move it between different phone models as users change their phone. I also hope to produce some tools to help researchers conduct HRV studies on larger numbers of people more easily.