According to HeartMath (Boulder Creek, California), about 60% of adults have tried to reduce their stress levels, with 50% of this population still struggling to consistently achieve this goal.
This editor was recently given the opportunity to use and review HeartMath’s Inner Balance, an iOS sensor that detects heart rate variability (HRV), the time interval between heart beats, and uses the signal to guide the user through more controlled breathing hopefully leading to an “improved well-being, vitality, clarity of thought, access to your heart’s intuition, and a more balanced response to stress”. The company uses a metric titled “Coherence” which is defined by a smooth sine-wave-like pattern in the HRV plot and, according to HeartMath’s research, is reflective of a number of important physiological changes. These include “an overall shift in autonomic balance toward increased parasympathetic activity, … a number of different bodily systems synchronize to the rhythm generated by the heart [blood pressure rhythm, respiration, and]… there is increased synchronization between the activity of the heart and brain.”
The product is simple to setup, easy to use, and has a shallow learning curve, which is certainly appealing to anyone who is already coping with stress. The packaging was slightly larger than expected, considering it consists of 3 small components – a 30 pin connector (for the iPhone/iPad), the ear sensor, and a small carrying pouch. The setup involves two main steps: download the free app from the App Store and attach the 30 pin connector to the iPhone/iPad followed by the sensor to the 30 pin connector. The connections were somewhat clumsy. I either had to remove my iPhone case because it interfered with the 30 pin connector, or risk losing my connection mid-session, which happened quite often since I was not inclined to remove my case every day. The company informed me that there is a free extender available through special request, but since the majority of the iPhone user population probably uses cases, the extender should be supplied as part of the standard package to eliminate the hassle of contacting the company separately to acquire it. The sensor clips to the user’s ear securely (with and without earrings in case anyone’s wondering), but I personally did not care for the wires, which are equivalent to those that come with standard ear buds, because they are easy to tangle or damage. HeartMath acknowledged that a wireless option for the sensor is also being explored but has its own concerns around battery life and charging the unit.
The app interface is quite enjoyable and simple to navigate. In particular I liked the built in reminder function to regulate usage, the automatic link to my iTunes music library so I could create a personal soundtrack for my breathing exercises, and the automatic link to my iPhone photo library so I could replace the generic gushing waterfall image. There are five screens to choose from during a session: a photo of your choice, a colored wheel to guide breathing that provides constant feedback on how well you’re steadying your breathing, a colored meter that rises and falls to guide your breathing, and detail screens showing HRV and Coherence over time or Pulse and Power Spectrum. For the average user, the detailed screens are probably not very meaningful without guidance. Perhaps this can be added to the training guide in the app. The settings menu enables customizing the user experience. There is an option to view a mini HRV plot that is helpful in visualizing your state of coherence, visual and sound track options, and the ability to change the challenge and breath pacer levels. After each session, a review screen shows up indicating the Challenge Level and length of time you spent in varying states of Coherence.
After several sessions in which my ability to remain in high states of ‘coherence’ increased, I wondered whether I was truly learning to breathe in a more controlled state or whether the app was becoming a crutch. The reason being that I found the screens with the colored meter breathing guides and feedback statements to be very helpful but for longer sessions it was not comfortable to stare at my phone screen continuously. Thus, when I tried to do sessions with my eyes closed, I found it more difficult to achieve coherence. Ideally, I would like to eventually be able to control my breathing without the visual aids, but having not used the app long enough, I could not say that it would not eventually happen. For the first few days using the product, I found the simplest settings extremely easy to master (i.e. achieve high coherence for long sessions) but was delighted to discover that through varying combinations of the challenge and breathing pacer levels, it became very difficult to achieve High Coherence or sustain it even when using the breathing guides. The customization also appealed to me on days when I could dedicate ample amounts of time for a session or conversely was too tired. Perhaps the only feature of the app I did not connect with was the journal, in which the user can write some notes about his/her mood along with an emoticon. For users coupling this with an iPad, entries are more likely with a keyboard, but with the iPhone, I definitely did not use the journal nor pictured myself doing so with the tiny iPhone keyboard.
While the hardware could use some refinement for the $99 retail price tag, I do agree that there is a need for stress reduction in today’s workforce and the Inner Balance may be one method of achieving this goal.
Product page: Inner Balance…