Athletes often pay close attention to various biometrics such as blood pressure, body fat percentage, and resting heart rate because keeping tabs on measurable variables can provide insight into your training status and fitness.
Another key heart-related biometric is your heart rate variability or HRV. HRV is a measure of the differences or fluctuations in the length of time between each successive heartbeat.
With more and more fitness watches now offering the ability to measure your heart rate variability, competitive athletes and recreational athletes alike are starting to pay more attention to this important biometric.
However, learning to interpret HRV is a necessary step to make use of HRV data on your fitness watch or fitness apps.
In order to do so, common questions arise, such as why is my HRV so low, what are the low HRV symptoms, and what are the best tips for how to increase HRV?
In this article, we will give you our top 11 tips on how to increase HRV.
Let’s get started!
How to Increase HRV
Here are some of the best tips for how to increase heart rate variability if you have low HRV or if you would simply like to try and increase your current HRV:
#1: Improve Your Sleep Habits
If you find yourself saying, “My HRV is very low,“ probably the single best thing you can do to improve your HRV is to focus on trying to get better sleep.
Not only do you need to be getting enough sleep every night, but you also need to get high-quality, restful, restorative sleep on a consistent basis.Adults should aim to get 7–9 hours of sleep every night for optimal health, according to the National Sleep Foundation.
Note that athletes in training may need even more sleep to optimize HRV, recovery, and overall health and well-being.
Implementing good sleep hygiene practices is important to help improve both the quantity and quality of your sleep.
This includes things like:
- Keeping a consistent sleep schedule and bedtime routine
- Staying away from screens and blue light for at least one to two hours before bed
- Stopping caffeine intake at least six hours before bed
- Avoiding excess alcohol consumption and heavy meals
- Keeping your bedroom cool and dark
- Using a white noise machine
While many people feel like they can get away with less sleep, if you are truly invested in how to increase heart rate variability, focusing on getting the best sleep you can on a consistent basis is the single best strategy for increasing HRV and well-being.
#2: Implement Breathwork
The majority of people who are trying to improve low heart rate variability are those who take an interest in their overall health and wellness practices.
For this reason, hopefully, it is a bit easier to get on board with incorporating another wellness strategy into your “low HRV treatment plan“: breathwork.
You don’t have to turn into a diehard yogi or sit on a meditation cushion for countless hours a day doing diaphragmatic breathing to see improvements in HRV and nervous system regulation with breathwork exercises.
In fact, research has found that slow, deliberate breathing for just six minutes a day can increase parasympathetic nervous system activity.
This, in turn, will help increase your HRV, as you will see more heart rate variability when your parasympathetic nervous system is activated.
When you are doing breathing exercises to increase heart rate variability, try to take at least 10 seconds per breath so that you are breathing no more than six times per minute.
Use diaphragmatic breathing, or belly breathing, so that the air fully distends your belly rather than just filling your chest.
Try to breathe in for at least four seconds and then hold for a count of two, and then slowly exhale for four seconds.
Another great thing about using breathwork as a strategy for how to increase heart rate variability is that you can call upon this skill at the moment when you are experiencing low HRV symptoms such as anxiety.
In this way, this “low HRV hack” can be both an ongoing strategy to help with low heart rate variability as well as an acute “rescue trick“ for times in the day when your sympathetic nervous system is overrunning your parasympathetic nervous system.
#3: Work Out Consistently
We know that getting regular exercise is important for overall health, so it is probably not surprising that there is evidence to suggest that both strength training and aerobic exercise can improve your heart rate variability in a meaningful way.
Therefore, if you have low heart rate variability and you are relatively inactive or inconsistently active with your workout routine, you should focus on building a habit of getting enough exercise on a regular basis.
For those who find themselves concerned with the question, “Why is HRV so low?” make sure that, at the very least, you are meeting the recommendations for physical activity for adults set forth by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the British Heart Foundation.
These are to accumulate either 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity cardio exercise per week and two full-body strength training workouts per week.
#4: Don’t Overdo It On Exercise
While failing to get enough exercise can contribute to low HRV because it can compromise your overall health and your ability to mitigate stress, the opposite is also true.
Overtraining or exercising too vigorously, too long, or without adequate recovery time puts your body in a state of overstress. This will increase cortisol and sympathetic nervous system activation, which will cause very low HRV.
Indeed, studies have found that overtraining can lead to a chronic imbalance in nervous system activity, with the sympathetic nervous system dominating the parasympathetic nervous system.
Over time, this will decrease your heart rate variability and lead to low HRV numbers.
Pay attention to your body for signs of overtraining; they often overlap the symptoms of low HRV and include things like fatigue, difficulty sleeping, poor sleep quality, poor recovery from workouts, and low energy even after sleeping.
Using exercise as a tool to increase heart rate variability and improve overall health is contingent upon finding a good balance between getting enough aerobic and resistance training exercises while supporting your body‘s recovery.
#5: Get Outside
Connecting with nature can be a great tip on how to improve HRV.
Studies have found that forest walking rather than city walking is much more effective at improving symptoms and physiological markers of stress, including reducing blood pressure and cortisol levels.
Thus, trying to get out in nature is a great strategy for increasing HRV naturally.
#6: Try Yoga
Certain types of meditation are also a great way how to improve HRV, such as Acem meditation.
#7: Focus On Hydration
An often-overlooked cause of poor HRV values is dehydration.
Proper hydration status seems imperative for all aspects of optimizing your health and well-being, including supporting the best HRV you can have.
For example, a clinical study found that even mild dehydration caused a decrease in heart rate variability in both men and women.
Dehydration is a stressor on the body, which can key up more sympathetic nervous system activation because the entire cardiovascular system has to work harder to supply your body with enough oxygen because blood volume drops when you are dehydrated.
This means that your heart has to beat faster in order to pump enough volume of blood per minute to your tissues.
Moreover, the aforementioned study found that mild dehydration contributed to heightened anxiety, lower mood, and poor cognitive function.
Anxiety can cause HRV to drop even more because it further activates the sympathetic nervous system and causes an imbalance in your nervous system regulation.
According to the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, women should aim to drink around 11.5 cups of fluid per day, and men should shoot for 15.5 cups.
Your own hydration needs may differ depending on your activity level, body size, climate, and workout routine, but making sure that you are getting enough water and staying properly hydrated is a great tip for how to improve heart rate variability.
#8: Limit Alcohol Consumption
Alcohol is perceived as a toxin to the body, so it functions as a stressor.
You do not have to eliminate alcohol entirely if you have low HRV or are looking for how to increase HRV naturally, but you do want to make sure that you are not drinking in excess.
One study found that one glass of wine did not impact HRV, but having two glasses of wine decreased heart rate variability by 28 to 33%.
This is rather significant, and worse, experts suggest that the HRV-lowering effects of alcohol may last for several days.
#9: Beef Up Your Greens Intake
We always hear the health advice, “Eat more greens!“
And studies suggest that if you want to know how to improve heart rate variability, this sage nutrition advice applies here as well.
One study found that people who ate more cooked or raw leafy green vegetables such as spinach, kale, mustard greens, and dark lettuce had higher HRV scores than those who did not.
Interestingly, other aspects of what is generally considered to be a healthy diet, such as consuming more fish and fruit, did not impact HRV numbers in a statistically significant way.
So, harness your inner Popeye and add more leafy greens when you are trying to raise your HRV number.
#10: Cut Your Commute
If possible, cutting back your commute or looking into other ways to strike a better work-life balance is another great tip to help fix low heart rate variability.
Studies have found that a long commute—90 minutes or more—reduces HRV.
#11: Use a Gratitude Journal
It may sound like just another woo-woo health tip, but studies have found that the act of writing in a gratitude journal actually raises HRV while the activity is taking place.
Just jotting down a few things that you are grateful for can have a profound effect on your mood and nervous system regulation.
Overall, if you are serious about treating low heart rate variability, reducing stress should be at the forefront of your “low HRV treatment plan.“
For more information about decreasing stress to better your HRV, check out our article on the benefits of smiling here.