If you’ve read our Biohacking Basics: Introduction to Heart Rate Variability post, you should have a basic idea of what HRV is and why you would want to increase your own. Because HRV is a function of the balance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic parts of the nervous system, there are many factors which influence it. In a future post we’ll go over some of the more active practices which can improve it, such as exercise, diet, meditation, and breathing exercises. But this post is dedicated to more general lifestyle changes, both in your daily routine and your attitude and outlook, which can help improve HRV.
Be mindful of the balance balance between your work and the rest of your life, and if work consistently dominates your time, thoughts, and emotions, consider ways to correct that balance. Of course this may be easier said than done, but letting work (including your commute) consume the majority of your waking hours, and cut into your sleeping hours, has real health consequences, and has been shown to lower HRV. Time spent working, and the accompanying stress lead to increased activity of the sympathetic nervous system, which in turn lowers HRV. Dedicating more time to relaxation, fun, and loved ones strengthens the parasympathetic response, and can increase HRV.
Beyond the basic work/life balance mentioned above, HRV may also be impacted by your feelings towards the rewards you receive from your job relative to the amount of work you put in. Research has found that those who feel they are adequately rewarded for the work they put into their jobs have lower levels of stress and higher nighttime HRV, while those who feel they put in more work than they are rewarded for have higher levels of stress and lower nighttime HRV. Addressing this may simply be a matter of changing your outlook on your job, focussing more on the rewards you do receive and embracing gratitude. Or, if in your honest assessment your job simply doesn’t provide rewards commensurate with the work you put in, it may be time to look for a new job.
Procrastination is a major source of stress in many people’s lives, and like other frequent sources of stress, it lowers HRV. Unlike many external sources of stress like money, politics, relationships, and jobs, procrastination is entirely within your control – so don’t let it take a toll on your health. Hours spent procrastinating not only tend to create stress as deadlines become tighter, they eat into or entirely eliminate the hours you could have for rest and relaxation.
For example imagine a typical work day, in which you have 16 waking hours and 8 hours of work you need to complete. If you spend the first 8 hours working, you are left with 8 hours to relax, have fun, spend time with loved ones, etc. and during these hours your mind is at ease because you’ve already finished your work for the day. These hours have little stress and therefore support your parasympathetic response, increasing HRV. Now turn that example around, and procrastinate for 8 hours, before finally working for 8 hours. Though you may spend the hours procrastinating doing something that should be fun or relaxing, your mind is filled with stress thinking about the work you still need to accomplish, so you don’t get the benefit of true stress-free relaxation. In this case all 16 waking hours are stressful, strengthening the sympathetic response – and lowering HRV. Use whatever tools you need to help avoid procrastination, and explore the many books, lectures, smartphone apps, and other resources that exist to minimize or eliminate your own tendency to procrastinate.
Exposure to fresh air, sunlight, and natural settings all decrease stress, and may improve HRV. If you have easy access to a forest or green open space, try to spend at least a little bit of time there every day. Walking or biking to work can be a great way get exercise and be in nature daily – but active commuting in areas of high pollution can negatively impact HRV, so this option can be counterproductive for those who live in dense urban areas. If you live in a big city, daily time in nature may not be an option, but that makes it even more important to spend time in natural settings on days off and vacations.
Healthy sleeping habits are vital to strengthening your parasympathetic response and increasing your HRV. Take a look at our sleep oriented posts for details on improving your sleep hygiene:
Embracing gratitude and forgiveness in your daily life will lower your overall stress, strengthen the parasympathetic response, and raise your HRV. Holding on to frustration, jealousy, and resentment extends and deepens the impact of negative experiences, and strengthens your sympathetic response – lowering your HRV. Rather than focussing on the difficulties you face, and the wrongs that have been done to you, choose instead to be grateful for the positive aspects of your life, and let go of resentment or anger you may feel towards people or situations that have wronged you.