Heart rate variability (HRV) is quickly climbing the health charts as the best predictor of your overall health, fitness, and longevity. Monitoring your individual HRV and how far it deviates from your baseline can tell you how much mental and physical stress is negatively impacting your heart. With what seems like a million numbers to manage, including your cholesterol and glucose levels, this article will provide you with practical information without overwhelming you. We will explain the why, the how, and 10 tips to improve HRV to feel your best.
What Is Heart Rate Variability?
While heart rate is measured by the number of times your heart beats per minute, heart rate variability is the difference in time between each heartbeat. Contrary to popular belief, your heart doesn’t beat evenly. Instead, there is a constant variation with milliseconds between heartbeats, known as RR intervals.
The physiological phenomenon of HRV originates from your autonomic nervous system and involves two branches; your parasympathetic (fight-or-flight) and sympathetic (relaxation response) nervous systems. Both of these competing components send signals to your heart, either resulting in a decreased heart rate by your parasympathetic nervous system or an increased heart rate by your sympathetic system. There are a myriad of factors that we will soon discuss that cause your HRV to fluctuate and how to improve HRV.
What Is A Normal HRV?
While a normal HRV for adults can range below 20 to over 200 milliseconds, your HRV is individualized based on a few factors. For instance, HRV tends to decrease with age. 20- to 25-year-olds typically have an average HRV between 55 and 105, whereas 60- to 65-year-olds tend to fall between 25 and 45. Gender and athleticism also play a part. Men typically have a higher HRV than females, and athletes often have a greater HRV than non-athletes. If you’re worried about your HRV, there are a few ways you can measure it to ensure it doesn’t drop too low.
3 Tips for Measuring HRV
Thanks to technological advancements, here are three easy ways to measure your HRV that don’t involve trips to the doctor and paying for expensive echocardiograms.
- Apps. Several companies have launched apps that allow you to monitor your HRV. While the accuracy of this method is still undergoing research, you can receive more awareness of what factors affect your HRV.
- Wearable chest strap monitors. These popular go-tos provide a more accurate reading than wrist devices like Fitbits and allow you to not only track your HRV but receive information about other variables that affect your health, such as your heart rate, sleep, and diet.
- Smart beds. With a press of a button, you can measure your HRV and other sleep-related biometrics, such as your respiratory rate, sleep stages, and sleeping heart rate.
10 Things that Impact HRV
Your HRV is a sensitive metric that constantly changes from external influences. From a poor interaction with your spouse to the meal you chose for dinner, it’s important to analyze and measure what affects your HRV to make necessary adjustments to your lifestyle.
- Stress levels
- Sleep patterns, habits, and quality of sleep
- Age – Your HRV lowers as you get older
- An unhealthy diet
- Exercise – the intensity of your workouts and how often or little affects your HRV
- Dysfunctional relationships – Are your relationships sparking joy or causing you stress?
- Chronic health conditions
10 Ways to Improve HRV
1. Exercise is your friend
It’s time to put your fitness membership to good use because exercise is the #1 tip to improve your HRV. You might notice a sudden decrease in your HRV after completing an intense workout like high-intensity interval training. This is not to alarm you. It is only an indicator that your body is recovering from a workout it may not be used to yet. But after the recovery period, you’ll notice your HRV will improve over time.
2. Namaste, Yoga
The physical nature of yoga delivers a powerhouse of benefits for a healthy heart. Each posture, whether you’re lying down or completing a physically challenging asana, quiets your fight or flight sympathetic response and improves your HRV.
3. Intermittent fasting
There’s a reason why cultures across the globe practice intermittent fasting; it works! When you fast, your body enters repair mode, and your parasympathetic nervous system becomes more active. By incorporating short intermittent fasts into your routine, you will calm your overly-stimulated sympathetic nervous system, leading to an increased HRV.
4. Limit your alcohol intake
It’s no surprise that alcohol negatively impacts your health, both mentally and physically. And while it’s tempting to have an extra glass of red wine after a long day, be mindful that too much alcohol can affect your parasympathetic nervous system, and produce a lower HRV than usual.
5. Get outside
Connecting to nature and becoming mindfully aware of your environment produces a positive effect on your overall well-being, can make you more resilient to stress and improve HRV. Try to get outside each day for a 20-minute walk, disconnect from your phone, and connect your senses to the world around you.
6. Be grateful
Gratitude is more than a buzzword. When we let go of the past and focus on the present moment, gratitude delivers a dramatic effect leading to decreased stress levels, improved sleep, more confidence, and of course, improved HRV.
7. Improve your sleep
The more you change your lifestyle to optimize your sleep, the higher your HRV improves over time. While it is indeed difficult to improve poor sleep cycles, especially as we age, follow this rule of thumb; If your HRV is low from a stressful day, include an evening workout or yoga session to increase your HRV for a deeper sleep. You won’t regret it!
8. Follow a healthy diet
With various sources telling us conflicting information about healthy diets, it can feel overwhelming to know which to follow. Regardless of your preferred diet, the research generally agrees that regular consumption of green leafy vegetables and omega fatty acids boosts your HRV and leads to increased longevity. Stock up on your favorite nut butter, get creative with your favorite chia seed pudding recipe, and incorporate various greens in your diet for optimized health.
9. Breathe and meditate
Both meditation and deep breathing exercises produce a profound effect on your autonomic nervous system. When you take the time to focus your attention inward, noticing your breath as it flows in and out while allowing your thoughts to come and go, your “fight or flight” sympathetic response quiets and gives you rest from mental distractions. Over time, with consistent practice, you’ll notice a happy increase in your HRV.
10. Manage your stress
The previous nine tips are all relative to improving your HRV, but stress plays a significant role in our health. With an entire branch in the autonomic nervous system dedicated to regulating and responding to stress, how you react to stimuli throughout your day will determine your HRV.
When you notice your HRV is lower than usual, prioritize your health, recovery, and self-care. Giving yourself that extra TLC your mind and body deserve will calm your stress levels and directly improve HRV. Cheers to you and the positive decisions you make for a healthier and happier year ahead!
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