Happy Heart Month! February is American Heart Month, which means today we’re sharing all things heart health. Specifically, we’re diving into Heart Rate Variability (HRV) which is a key predictor of cardiovascular wellness and overall health.
Heart Rate Variability is the amount that your heart rate differs from beat to beat. In other words, your heart doesn’t hit each beat in a perfectly synchronous loop – there are small variations between each beat. Simply put, Heart Rate Variability is the difference in time between heart beats.
A higher HRV at rest – more variability between heartbeats – is actually a good thing. It means that your body and cardiovascular system are more dynamic and flexible in their response to stress.
Every day, we have stressors which alert our nervous system: whether it’s work, finance, health or family related, all of these have the potential to trigger your “fight or flight” response, release cortisol and other stress hormones, and increase your heart rate. In these moments, your HRV drops as your heart rate picks up to a quicker, staccato pace.
To reestablish equilibrium faster after a stressful event, you need to raise your HRV. When you learn how to do this with HRV training, this can complete the stress response more quickly, which leads to 1) less feelings of stress and feeling overwhelmed; 2) a decrease in the amount of stress hormones released; and 3) an increased sense of calm and control, even in high-pressure situations. And improved overall health, of course.
HRV training can be done in a variety of ways, all of which support more balanced nervous and cardiovascular systems. We’ve outlined five ways you can boost your HRV below:
Practice breathing exercises
Your breathing is one of the simplest avenues to asserting control over your nervous system and heart rate. When you take a deep inhale, your heart rate increases (this is why many swimmers may take deep breaths before a relay). When you take a long, slow exhale, your heart rate decreases (this is why many meditations start with long exhalations).
You can use breathing techniques to increase your HRV and improve your overall health. Taking a few minutes per day to connect with your breath can increase your feelings of mental wellness, clarity of attention, and overall presence, while also soothing your nervous system and slowing your heart rate. Research suggests that six minutes is the optimal amount of time to boost HRV.
Diaphragmatic breathing is a great place to start. To practice this form of breathing, inhale to a count of four, hold it for two, and exhale for six counts. As you do so, focus on expanding and contracting your diaphragm – the muscle lining that separates your chest cavity from your stomach.
Similar to breathwork, meditation can also improve HRV. While slow breathing exercises can be used while you’re working, watching TV, or otherwise occupied, meditation requires that your focus goes inward, becoming mindful of your inner thoughts and experience.
Taking a few minutes per day in meditation (which frequently couples with breathing exercises as well) can be extremely helpful to boosting your HRV. When you meditate, you are really dedicating time and energy to soothing your nervous system – the more you practice soothing your nervous system, the more trained your body becomes to calm down after a stressful event. This ability coincides with increased HRV.
If you’re new to meditating, you can try the Goodful 5-minute meditation linked below.
Increase hydration and avoid alcohol
Low hydration can cause a decrease in HRV, even if it’s only mild dehydration. Barring its effects on poor mood, anxiety, and decreased brain functioning, improper hydration also causes your HRV to drop, so be sure to get enough fluids each day. A great rule of thumb for the amount of water you need uses the following formula:
Your weight (lbs) / 2 = ___ oz water / day
For example: 150 lbs / 2 = 75 oz water / day
On that note: You’ll also want to avoid alcohol. Apart from its negative effects on health, alcohol is a diuretic and dehydrates your body quickly. This also leads to decreased HRV.
Eat more leafy greens
Leafy greens – more so than fruit, fish, or other veggies – have been connected to elevated HRV. Even if you’re not a fan of salads, there are so many ways you can incorporate more greens into your diet. Consider:
- Adding spinach to a smoothie
- Making kale chips in the oven
- Adding mustard greens into your favorite stew
The options are endless, and no matter what you choose, the nutrition of greens will increase your HRV and overall health!
Balance your exercise routine
Including exercise in your weekly schedule is important to all aspects of health. It has positive impacts on your stress levels, mental health, physical wellness, immune function, and more. Among this myriad of benefits is also your HRV – a balanced exercise routine that includes aerobic exercises as well as strength training.
A word of caution for those who love to exercise, however: avoid overworking your body. Overtraining can actually dysregulate your nervous system and decrease HRV over time. If you’re not sure if you’re overtraining, key signs to look out for are regular fatigue, inability to complete workouts, or a general desire for more rest. When it comes to boosting your HRV, the options are endless. This Heart Month, choose a few of these tips to implement this week to increase your HRV and better equip your body to manage life’s stressors.