Heart Rate Variability (HRV) is a valuable metric to determine your fitness level, the health of your cardiovascular system, and you ability to manage stress. To learn more about what HRV is and why you probably want to increase it, check out our previous post Biohacking Basics: Introduction to Heart Rate Variability. This post is dedicated to detailing some of the most effective active practices you can do on a regular basis to increase your HRV.
Exercise is one of the most widely recognized methods for improving your HRV. Exercise not only improves the health of your cardiovascular system, but also strengthens your parasympathetic response, lowers your stress levels, and helps lose weight and build muscle. While strength training is a valuable tool in overall fitness and weight loss, aerobic exercise is the most important for improving HRV. So if you already have a solid regimen of strength training, consider adding aerobic, or increasing the amount of aerobic exercise you do. Around 150 minutes per week (30 minutes 5 times per week, or something similar) of aerobic exercise should provide a significant and persistent increase to your HRV.
When using aerobic exercise to increase HRV, it’s important to consider training frequency because overtraining can actually decrease your HRV. High intensity workouts 5 or 6 times a week can easily become too much for your body, and lower your HRV. So be sure to balance your training with enough rest and recovery days. Fortunately low-intensity aerobic exercise can generally be done on rest days, without interrupting your body’s recovery. Many athletes measure their HRV regularly, and use it as a tool to determine the ideal training and recovery cycle. HRV tends to be lower after high-intensity workouts, and slowly climbs back to baseline as the body recovers. By monitoring it, you can determine when your body is ready for another high-intensity workout.
A healthy diet, low in pro-inflammatory foods plays an important role in supporting and increasing HRV. Foods that promote inflammation, such as refined carbohydrates, gluten, hydrogenated vegetable oils, processed meats, sugar, and dairy are best avoided or kept to a minimum. Foods that don’t contribute to inflammation, or reduce it, such as organic grass fed meats, wild caught fish, green vegetables, garlic, olive oil, onions, ginger, coconut oil, and antioxidant-rich foods should be staples of your diet if you are looking to increase your HRV.
Certain supplements, such as L-theanine (also found in green tea), coenzyme Q-10, D-ribose, magnesium, omega-3 fish oil, and vitamin B-12, may also help increase HRV.
Because HRV is tied to the sympathetic/parasympathetic nervous system balance, reducing stress and improving your stress management are vital to improving HRV. Meditation and breathing exercises are simple yet powerful tools to reduce your daily stress levels and increase your HRV. It’s long been known that controlled breathing can temporarily increase HRV, but studies have recently shown that this effect is also cumulative over time, meaning regular practice will increase baseline HRV even when you are not actively meditating or doing a breathing exercise.
If you’ve never meditated or done controlled breathing exercises, don’t be discouraged by your lack of experience. There are plenty of techniques that don’t require any background and are simple enough to begin without any formal instruction, and a wealth of apps and audio programs that provide easy to follow guidance. One such technique is resonant breathing, which we have a post and supplemental audio files dedicated to to resonant breathing article. The basic idea of the technique is to take slow, deep breaths, at a rate of around 6 full breaths per minute, with equal time on the inhale and exhale, both around 6 seconds.
There are also biofeedback options for HRV breathing exercises. Using an HRV sensor, or just a camera equipped smartphone, apps such as HeartRate+ guide your breathing and provide feedback showing your HRV. With these tools, you can train yourself to breath in such a way that increases your HRV. One of my favorite HRV apps, EliteHRV (link this out toElite HRV) has a built in breathwork program to provide you with real time feedback.
Yoga may be one of the single most effective ways to increase your HRV, as it combines meditation, controlled breathing, and exercise into a single practice. There are many different varieties of yoga, but studies suggest most or all of them increase HRV when practiced regularly.