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Podcast 112: Study with U.S. Army Looks at Alaska Soldiers' HRV and Resilience

February 24, 2021

On this week’s podcast, we unveil a major WHOOP research effort with the U.S. Army in Alaska.

By Will Ahmed

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We’ve put WHOOP straps on over 1,000 Army personnel in the Arctic to better understand how their bodies respond to high-stress environments.

As we know, it gets cold in Alaska, and sunlight is especially hard to come by at this time of year. The Army has partnered with WHOOP to study how circadian alignment impacts physiological metrics, heart rate variability, and self-reported measures of resilience.

WHOOP Director of Military Teams Robert Moeller is behind the mic for this episode and sits down with WHOOP VP of Performance Kristen Holmes, principal investigator on the study, and Army Chief Warrant Officer Phil Ranck. They discuss what the Army and WHOOP hope to learn about resilience through the lens of physiological data, everything you need to know about HRV and why it’s an excellent indicator of how your body is handling stress, and how perceived readiness and actual physiological readiness align.

We are honored to do what we can to assist American soldiers as they keep us safe. Stay healthy and stay in the green!


U.S. Army Study Podcast Show Notes:

2:59 – Helping Those Who Serve. “What we are going to learn over the next 6 months I feel is going to change the way that we view performance from a physiological level when it comes to those that serve us and do so in a thankless way.”

5:45 – Measuring Stress in Soldiers. “[WHOOP] is a non-invasive measure of stress. We can capture this during high-octane activities like those conducted in the military. To be able to capture this data, this 24/7 picture, has really helped our war fighters get a better understanding of how their body is adapting to the demands on a mission or a training trip, but also home life.”

7:09 – Training for Missions. Robert and Kristen discuss what soldiers can learn from their physiological metrics during training sessions and how they can apply that to missions in the field.

13:06 – Sleep Deprivation. “We wear that sleep deprivation as a badge of honor,” Phil says of his time in the Army. “You never really understand the toll that it takes on your body. … The Army is starting to realize that. When we started talking with WHOOP and I put a strap on my wrist for the first time and I actually saw what wearing that badge of honor was doing to my body and how it was going to have a long-lasting effect on my family, my kids, and my life after the military, it was an eye-opener.”

13:57 – Improving for Yourself and Others. “How do I become the best version of myself again? By pushing myself to that limit, to that breaking point of sleep deprivation, I was doing my command no justice,” Phil says.

15:40 – Importance of Sleep. “Lack of sleep is going to put you in a long-term deficit and you’re going to build a new normal that is not optimal,” Robert says.

17:24 – Study Goals. “Resilience: that’s really at the core of what we’re trying to understand is resilience in high stress environments and the impact of circadian alignment,” Kristen says. I’ve seen what desynchronization does to human physiology. … The study is really examining the impact of circadian alignment on heart rate variability, sleep quality, and self-reported measures of resilience.

18:38 – HRV and Sleep Quality. “HRV is a biomarker of an individual’s overall resilience profile and it correlates with sleep quality, specifically time spent in deeper stages of sleep. We’re really trying to understand that relationship more fully and we’re going to explore the relationship between factors that underlie circadian alignment.”

19:39 – Understanding Stress and Actioning Results. “We’re really trying to provide insight into how personal psychological and situational factors interact to produce adaptive and maladaptive stress responses in these folks, the U.S. military personnel, operating in this extreme arctic environment.”

21:47 – Extreme Alaskan Conditions. Phil details the types of conditions soldiers deal with while stationed in Alaska and why it’s important for the Army to increase resilience as personnel deal with extreme cold and daytime darkness. “At its darkest moment here, during the winter solstice, in Anchorage we will have four hours of what we call daylight, but it’s not necessarily direct sunlight depending on the day, it’s just light effect. And Fairbanks has much less [sunlight than that]. That has an effect on our psyche up here as we’re doing things.”

23:28 – Darkness and the Human Body. Kristen dives deep on the science of circadian clocks and how to mitigate a lack of sunlight. “The circadian clock is programmed to reset every 24 hours and it’s guided by natural light. So when you don’t get this natural light, hormone production, mood, appetite, digestion, body temperature, and all sorts of bodily functions just work differently or are not optimized.”

29:12 – Shift Work and Your Body. Robert and Phil discuss the impact of inconsistent work schedules on your body. “For real-world operations, I would go overseas and in less than 72 hours, sleep during the day and work [at night]. I was supposed to be optimized for 8 or 9 hours a night,” Robert says. “I wasn’t wearing WHOOP at the time, WHOOP didn’t exist at the time, but I think it would be absolutely fascinating to see how long it [would’ve taken] to get back to baseline.”

35:33 – A Large Group to Study. Kristen lays out more details of the study, which will examine 1,000 Army personnel by tracking their data through WHOOP Straps. Two of the three groups in the study will get a specific intervention related to circadian alignment, while the third group will not get an intervention. “The design of the study is pretty cool and that will be able to understand the impact of just WHOOP by itself, which, as we know, is magical. … In addition to getting the feedback from the app, [participants] will get exposed to this intervention and we’ll see what impact those interventions have on physiology and all the subjective measures of resilience that we’re looking at.

37:55 – Keeping Soldiers Safe. “When our soldiers are out there and we’re doing things, we have a tendency to mask capability with willpower and determination. That is the soldier way. We will attempt to power through as best we can at personal risk to our own health and we don’t really understand why because we don’t receive education like this on a daily basis. So commanders, if you look at it, are using dirty data to make the decisions, not because they want to but because they don’t have the right information at hand. So as WHOOP has come to us and started to help us understand circadian rhythm, it’s helping us see things in a different light and understand risk mitigation. … Decisions are made off of what we perceive to be the best soldier, but without intervention we don’t know who that is because of that mask that we wear, that willpower and determination mask.”

41:21 – Rest and Preparedness. “If you know an athlete is really under recovered and just doesn’t have the capacity to perform that day, they’re not going to play 35 minutes of basketball, they’re going to maybe play 12 or they’re going to sit out that day. It’s not a punishment, it’s smart. It’s how you manage people. There’s so much insight to use.”

48:06 – Army’s Partnership with WHOOP. “ We knew we had a problem with Alaska with these barriers and the issues that we face, but we weren’t sure how to address them. We were trying to ask soldiers to self-report [their sleep schedules, how their bodies were reacting, etc.]. That’s how this all came to be. We understood we needed something more,” Phil says.

49:13 – Value of HRV. “The core principle is that a heart rate that is variable and responsive to demands bestows a survival advantage. Because you have the ability to respond to the demands in your environment in an optimal way, you have a better chance of surviving your environment.”

51:00 – HRV and WHOOP Recovery Metric. “Heart rate variability is one of the primary inputs to the WHOOP recovery algorithm. It’s a metric that helps you understand how you are adapting to external stress, mental, physical, and emotional stress.”

55:31 – The Purpose. “This is about American soldiers. This is about American lives. Because that has been the core premise of this study and how we’ve operated, I think it’s allowed us to do something truly unique and magnificent,” Phil says.

Connect with Robert Moeller on LinkedIn.

Connect with Kristen Holmes on LinkedIn and Instagram.

Connect with Phil Ranck on LinkedIn.

Learn More: WHOOP Partners with U.S. Army in Study to Examine Stress in Soldiers


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Will Ahmed

Will Ahmed is the Founder and CEO of WHOOP, which has developed next generation wearable technology for optimizing human performance and health. WHOOP members include professional athletes, Fortune 500 CEOs, fitness enthusiasts, military personnel, frontline workers and a broad range of people looking to improve their performance. WHOOP has raised more than $400 million from top investors and is valued at $3.6 billion, making it the most valuable standalone wearables company in the world. Ahmed has recruited an active advisory board that consists of some of the world’s most notable cardiologists, technologists, marketers, and designers. Ahmed was recently named to the 2021 Sports Business Journal 40 under 40 list as well as 2020 Fortune 40 Under 40 Healthcare list and previously named to Forbes 30 Under 30 and Boston Business Journal’s 40 Under 40. Ahmed founded WHOOP as a student at Harvard, where he captained the Men’s Varsity Squash Team and graduated with an A.B. in government.