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Let me introduce myself. My name is Mark Sisson. I’m 63 years young. I live and work in Malibu, California. In a past life I was a professional marathoner and triathlete. Now my life goal is to help 100 million people get healthy. I started this blog in 2006 to empower people to take full responsibility for their own health and enjoyment of life by investigating, discussing, and critically rethinking everything we’ve assumed to be true about health and wellness...

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October 14, 2014

How to Increase Your Heart Rate Variability

By Mark Sisson
40 Comments

Heart beatLast week, I introduced the concept of heart rate variability – the variation of heart beat to beat intervals. Far from the metronome we might assume it to be, the healthiest heart beat follows a fractal pattern, with varying lengths of time separating each pulse. A higher heart rate variability (HRV) suggests a relaxed, low-stress physiological milieu, while a lower HRV indicates a need for recovery, rest, and sleep. That’s why athletes use HRV monitoring to plan their workouts and rest periods, PR attempts and deload weeks: it eliminates the guesswork. Even if you’re not an athlete, the HRV is a strong diagnostic biomarker for general health and resiliency. Today, we’ll be exploring 16 ways to increase it.

The following tips are researched-based methods for increasing your HRV, but they’re not deal breakers. Failing to check one or several or even most of these methods off won’t necessarily result in rock bottom HRV. Maybe you have a job you love, but the commute is long. Maybe green tea makes you jittery and nauseated. I’m just giving you all the information I have so that you can find a method that works for you. No one can do them all; I certainly can’t.

Oh, and I won’t go into the normal stuff that positively impacts our HRV, like getting enough sleep and regular exercise. Those are all important, so keep doing them, but the benefits are implied and don’t require further explication or justification.

Let’s get on with it:

Rest.

We shouldn’t be aiming for perpetually high HRV, because that would mean we were never encountering any stressors. We couldn’t exercise. We couldn’t lift heavy things or sprint (not even once in awhile). We couldn’t watch scary movies. We’d never have anything to recover from and improve upon. But after these stressful events that tax our bodies, throw us out of homeostasis, and bias us toward the sympathetic nervous system, we must rest in order to restore our HRV. So make time to rest. And remember – you don’t just need to rest after a hard workout. Exposure to any stressor that increases sympathetic nervous system activity should be followed by some rest, even if it’s just chilling out with a good book.

Drink green tea (or take L-theanine).

Green tea is an interesting beverage, containing both stimulating (caffeine) and calming properties. In an animal model of diabetes, green tea consumption increased heart rate variability (among other cardiometabolic biomarkers). If you hate green tea, no worries. One of the active compounds found in green tea, L-theanine, has also been shown to increase HRV. That’s actually a big reason why I include L-theanine in Primal Calm – for its ability to reduce sympathetic nervous system activity.

Don’t procrastinate.

Procrastination is that form of self-sabotage that almost everyone practices despite the near universal denunciation it receives. I’ve railed against it before, and I’ve even given you some tips and tools for combatting it. Well, here’s another reason to stop doing it: it kills your heart rate variability. In almost every available study of HRV in college students during exam week, heart rate variability plummets. The more anxious and unprepared you are for a test, the more its impending arrival will tank your HRV. What’s funny is that the kids who tended toward lower HRVs actually performed better on the tests, but that’s probably a function of actually caring about the tests enough to cram for them. The better way is to plan ahead and remain low-stress during exam week not because you don’t care about doing well, but because you’re prepared.

Don’t work too much or commute too far.

Ha, I know. Easier said than done. Regardless, long working and commuting hours don’t just prevent you from seeing friends and family, doing things that you enjoy, and getting adequate sleep. They’re also strongly associated with reduced HRV.

Try active commuting unless it’s through an area of high pollution.

Although it didn’t measure HRV directly, one paper found that active commuting increased resilience to stress and reduced stress reactivity – two indices that generally correlate with higher HRV. However, active commuting amidst high pollution might be counterproductive. Air particulate exposure is bad enough for your health and HRV, but it gets worse when you add in running or cycling. Active commuters who commute through high pollution areas breathe in more air particulates and see greater reductions in HRV.

Find a job that gives you enough reward for the work you put into it.

We can’t all do jobs we love or deeply care about. I get that. But if we can find a job that gives back as much as we put into it, our HRV might benefit. One study found that job stress as measured by the work/reward ratio inversely correlated with HRV. People who felt they got sufficient reward for the work they put in (low stress) had higher nighttime HRV. People who felt they were putting in more than they received had lower nighttime HRV. Another study in young Finnish women had similar results. To me, this indicates that entrepreneurship might lead to a higher HRV, since despite all the stress that accompanies owning your own business, you definitely get the fruits of your labor (after taxes and overhead, of course).

Practice forgiveness.

Forgiveness practice is one of those methods that so-conventional-they’d-rather-die-than-take-a-supplement types would ridicule, but it’s got merit. One study actually examined the vagal ramifications of giving forgiveness compared to ruminating on a past transgression. Initially, both groups induced negative feelings by thinking about a time where they were wronged; this lowered HRV. Then, one group was told to forgive their transgressor and the other group was to continue ruminating on the transgression. In the forgiveness group, HRV increased while in the ruminating group, HRV remained depressed. Note that the forgiveness occurred entirely in the subjects’ heads. They didn’t actually contact their transgressors. Forgiveness can happen comfortably and exclusively from the confines of your own brain.

Do yoga.

There are dozens of yoga varieties, and most of them have been found to improve heart rate variability, whether it’s hatha yoga, yoga nidra, laughter yoga, or isha yoga. Even just lying in a single pose (savasana, or corpse pose) with relaxing music playing increases HRV.  You won’t find me in leotards and dreadlocks (that’s what yoga dudes wear, right?) anytime soon, but I gotta admit that yoga is a powerful practice.

Try meditating.

If you search the literature for heart rate variability and meditation, you get the distinct impression that as with yoga, nearly every type of meditation practice has the potential to increase HRV. Vipassana (mindfulness meditation), zen, and pranic meditation all work. I’ve never had much success with meditating myself – guided meditation podcasts/Youtube videos worked better than trying to sit on my own –  but it clearly works for many people.

Listen to the right kind of music.

In young women without experience listening to either, baroque music seems to improve HRV relative to heavy metal. Same goes for men. While I’d bet the kid with Metallica posters (I’m showing the pitiful extent of my heavy metal knowledge here, aren’t I?) on his walls would have a different HRV response to heavy metal than people without a prior relationship to it, maybe Viking death metal isn’t the best choice for anyone looking to relax and increase HRV. Also, don’t be fooled by the spacey vibes issuing from the local kundalini center; new age music seems to bias the autonomic nervous system response toward the sympathetic side. A safe choice is probably whatever music you find calming and soothing.

Breathe deeply and slowly.

Slow breathing consistently raises HRV. Don’t get hung up on the pattern of the breath, which doesn’t matter so much as long as the rate is slow. Of course, I wouldn’t recommend deep breathing exclusively. That would just be weird.

Try alternate nostril breathing.

Huh? It sounds odd, but it’s simple and it works:

  1. Place your ring and pinky fingers at your left nostril and your thumb at your right nostril.
  2. Block the left nostril using your ring and pinky fingers and inhale through your right nostril.
  3. Block the right nostril with your thumb and exhale through your left nostril.
  4. Inhale through your left nostril, keeping the right nostril blocked.
  5. Continue for 9 more rounds.

Studies show that alternate nostril breathing can increase HRV.

Go for a walk in nature.

The Japanese therapy known as “forest bathing,” which involves taking a short, leisurely visit to the forest, increases HRV and reduces stress. Since all trees (and plant matter in general) give off the volatile organic compounds thought to be responsible for the benefits, any nature setting should do the trick.

Take fish oil or eat seafood.

Several studies indicate that taking omega-3 supplements can increase HRV. In patients with high triglycerides, a largish dose of EPA and DHA (3.4 grams/day) increased HRV at rest and in times of stress (when a high HRV can really help). A smaller dose (0.85 g/day) did not. In men who’ve recently had heart attacks (a population in dire need of improved heart rate variability), omega-3s increase HRV.  These results jibe with the well-known inhibitory effect of marine omega-3s on stress hormones.

Travel back in time and tell your pregnant mother to start exercising.

Exercising during pregnancy appears to increase fetal HRV (a good thing, just as it is for humans out of the womb) and confer epigenetic benefits to the HRV of infants one month post-birth. It’s unclear whether these benefits persist into childhood and adulthood, but I’d probably take the bet that they do. If you can swing time travel, make it happen. Just be wary of paradoxes (don’t even go near your grandpa) and tears in the space time, even small ones. Take along a photo of yourself; if your image starts to fade, something has gone horribly wrong.

While you’re back there, have her also eat seafood or take DHA supplements.

Pregnant mothers who take DHA supplements (or eat foods high in DHA, like fish) improve the heart rate variability of their fetuses.

Okay, that’s it for today, folks. With any luck, everyone will find something new and useful to implement into their life. Even if you’re not into the HRV stuff, most of these recommendations have the added benefit of simply being pleasant and good for overall quality of life.

Any experts out there with personal experience care to add their methods for improving HRV? I’d love to hear. Take care, everyone, and thanks for reading!

Prefer listening to reading? Get an audio recording of this blog post, and subscribe to the Primal Blueprint Podcast on iTunes for instant access to all past, present and future episodes here.

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40 Comments on "How to Increase Your Heart Rate Variability"

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Groktimus Primal
2 years 5 months ago

Until MDA came along I never would have guessed that HRV was desirable.

Paleo Bon Rurgundy
Paleo Bon Rurgundy
2 years 5 months ago

The end result of all yoga is to raise one’s kundalini. There are 22 types of yoga and each provides an unique path to raising kundalini. Another mental approach is to think of each yoga as a facet on a diamond. Each facet alone is nice, but kundalini is the whole diamond. Kundalini yoga provides the shortest means to raise kundalini. That is why kundalini yoga is known as the royal yoga, aka raj yoga.

Kay
2 years 5 months ago

I’ve really enjoyed kundalini yoga in the past. What’s your favorite book or blog post to help explain it to someone new? Thanks!

Paleo Bon Rurgundy
Paleo Bon Rurgundy
2 years 5 months ago

Hello Kay, truthfully I do not have a favorite blog or book. Yoga is like learning to swim; sure, you can read about swimming but you just have get in the water to experience it. Ideally someone is with you showing you how to breathe, float, different strokes, etc. Kundalini yoga even more so. One can locate a teacher via 3HO (Happy, Healthy, Holy).

Honestly the holy/spiritual aspect is not my cup of tea but there is no doubt that I feel happy and healthy when I practice. I hope this helps.

Cheers,
PBR

James
James
10 months 21 days ago

Google ‘3HO cult’ without the quotes.

PBnewby
PBnewby
2 years 5 months ago

This is very interesting, thanks Mark!!

Check out this HRV app that uses the iPhone’s camera and flash to perform the readings. No expensive heart rate monitor required!!! I found this after searching the web. It looks to be complete enough to achieve what Mark is talking about in the article above. I have no affiliation or relationship with the creator of the app.

https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/camera-heart-rate-variability/id788460316?ls=1&mt=8

Martha
Martha
2 years 5 months ago

I’m a sucker for time travel. But I’m not going to risk getting stuck in 1954, since I’m pretty sure my mother wouldn’t listen to me. She kept sneaking cigarettes for a good ten years after that.

wildgrok
wildgrok
2 years 5 months ago

wow same exact case, you described my mother!

Wenchypoo
Wenchypoo
2 years 5 months ago

Mine didn’t even bother sneaking. If I could travel back in time I’d tell my mother to put down the cigarettes and ease up on the alcohol and grains, because she’s going to give me the worst case of cancer risk and autoimmune problems she’s ever seen.

If she had laid off the grains, and/or had herself tested for Celiac disease, she might have avoided my diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis when I was 3.

Martin
Martin
2 years 5 months ago

Todd Becker found cold showers to be very effective in increasing HRV:
http://gettingstronger.org/2014/07/track-your-hrv-to-boost-adaptive-reserves/

Paleo Bon Rurgundy
Paleo Bon Rurgundy
2 years 5 months ago

Cold showers before AM sadhana is highly suggested in kundalini yoga. Aside from the cold water making you awake, the cold water forces the blood into the organs. After the shower comes the morning kriya (exercise set) and then meditation. A complete physical reboot to start your day!

Dr. Anthony Gustin
2 years 5 months ago

I’m a huge fan of the Headspace app. Having my HR monitor on before and after you can see huge changes in the numbers immediately.

Sally
2 years 5 months ago

Interesting. I have ME/cfs and I’ve heard this come up in discussion about when a crash is imminent. I’ve tried most of the suggestions (barring the time travel ones obviously) but not the alternate nostril breathing…. guess I’ll have to give that a go when no-one is looking. 😉

Damien Gray
Damien Gray
2 years 5 months ago

Many years ago, while in college, I took a Yoga course for one of my PE electives. We were taught alternate nostril breathing and relaxation techniques. It slowed my normal breathing down dramatically. Currently, my normal breathing rate is a bit over half my wife’s. One semester gave me a lifelong change.

Paleo Bon Rurgundy
Paleo Bon Rurgundy
2 years 5 months ago

Nostril breathing is very affective. The left nostril cools/relaxes and the right nostril warms/excites. Couple that with stepped breathing (inhaling and exhaling in stages, like 4 in/4 out, etc and one can change their state of mind and blood chemistry quickly.

Madhaxus
Madhaxus
2 years 5 months ago

You, sir, are a man of many parts.

Angela
2 years 5 months ago

Now I think people should be forward thinking, sure they might not be too overweight, or have ED currently. But could HRV give us a concrete measurement prior to these more severe health conditions that we can monitor on a daily, weekly, monthly basis. Of course one must take the next step and do the best they can to either maintain your current level of HRV or increase HRV with various lifestyle changes.

Cody
Cody
2 years 5 months ago

I’ve used an HRV monitoring app on my phone and the one thing that lowers my HRV the fastest and most consistently is playing guitar.

bigmyc
bigmyc
2 years 5 months ago

Did you mean that it “raises” your HRV? If not, shredding your axe could be tantamount to shredding your endocrine system.

Cody
Cody
2 years 5 months ago

I meant lowers stress/raises HRV.

Animanarchy
Animanarchy
2 years 5 months ago
No wonder my HRV seems high (if my perception is accurate). I avoid some of the main stressors like vehicular commutes and (often in my own way) follow lots of the suggestions. Or should I say orders. Most of the time that’s how I look at the suggestions on this site, and I abide by them religiously, even if I’m a bit heretical. I still have to travel relatively far distances sometimes by foot or bicycle but those treks and rides are usually enjoyable enough to complete with a positive mindset, especially because they’re how I get a lot of… Read more »
storm
storm
2 years 5 months ago

might be a good time to grab a copy of “convict conditioning” – it is THE book on physical fitness – even when locked in a prison cell…

Kit
Kit
2 years 5 months ago

Perhaps Mark should do a post on how to stay out of jail for a meaner body and better sleep. Unless you insulate yourself from people with, mainly, money you come face to face with the misery of humanity, ie quite how nasty people inherently are. I have always wondered what would happen to procrastinators of upper middle class perfection, if their bellies were empty for a week or two. Soldier on fella, and in this case, I know it’s defying Mark, get your ‘greens’ but not leafy, more like brocolli.

Animanarchy
Animanarchy
2 years 4 months ago

As it turned out I may have actually seen my little minion… in the toilet, after the home miscarriage. I can’t be sure but I suspect so. Everything else that came out was blood and bloody gunk, which made quite a mess, but there was a little I guess yellowish pinkish blob thing (hard to tell when it’s underwater and almost down the drain) that started it all.
It was either a natural death for it and home disposal (as it was probably doomed anyhow) or a surgical one so I think things worked out alright, considering.

Sabertooth FItness
1 year 10 months ago

hahahaha…pees pants….hahaha

Marti
Marti
2 years 5 months ago

Wow

Lou
Lou
2 years 5 months ago
I’ve been using an HRV app along with a heart rate monitor for the last three months and I’ve found it quite beneficial. I used to over-train pretty consistently, where I would get some good results training wise, but invariably burnout usually after about 4-6 weeks. This would just make me feel physically horrible and really anxious for about a week and the resulting anxiety would burn off most of my muscle gains. In the last 3 months since checking my HRV in the morning upon waking I’ve been better able to plan rest periods. I use an app which… Read more »
HopelessDreamer
HopelessDreamer
2 years 5 months ago

Animanarchy, your life story today was almost as good as Mark’s post.
Good luck to you – and think twice about the baby…maybe it will change both your lives for the better.

Kim
Kim
2 years 5 months ago

“Resentment is like taking poison and waiting for the other person to die.” – Carrie Fisher

Forgiveness is important. Otherwise, we’re toxic.

Tom Taylor
2 years 5 months ago
I have found the Sauna to be one of the most effective tools for relaxation/recovery/regeneration and it’s benefit to increasing HRV. Also, too much of a good thing can be a bad thing, it’s best to rotate through each regeneration method every 2-3 weeks. Otherwise, your body will adapt to the positive stressors and their benefits will decrease. HRV is individual and unique so it’s important to be mindful of your choices and use HRV to gauge the results of using each method. Just because a method works well in a study or for your friend or trainer does not… Read more »
Sandy
2 years 5 months ago

I suggest watching this TED talk on ‘being brilliant every day’, it refers to HR as well.
https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=q06YIWCR2Js
Also suggests a steady rhythm breathing pattern to regulate HR.

bigmyc
bigmyc
2 years 5 months ago

VOCs? Volatile Organic Compounds are the same things that are thought to be present and slightly hazardous in new car plastics, some types of rugs, etc. What’s the deal here?

b2curious
b2curious
2 years 5 months ago

VOCs – Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are organic chemicals that have a high vapor pressure at ordinary room temperature. Their high vapor pressure results from a low boiling point, which causes large numbers of molecules to evaporate or sublimate from the liquid or solid form of the compound and enter the surrounding air.

VOCs are not necessarily bad; some are, some are not.

bigmyc
bigmyc
2 years 5 months ago

Sweet. That clears everything up.

Isabelle
Isabelle
2 years 5 months ago
Hello! Thank you for a very interesting presentation; I live in Europe and I would like to say that here the practice of Cardiac Coherence is fairly well known, and is very effective in raising the level of HRV. With an application on smartphones (iPhone and Android) you can practice everywhere 5 minutes 3 times a day. It is best to check with the software of a therapist Cardiac Coherence that the rate chosen is the right one for yourself. I tell you the site where you can find exciting information and purchase this application: http://www.coherencecardiaque.ca/services/index.html https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=22deFxgJF4Q For Androïd :… Read more »
b2curious
b2curious
2 years 5 months ago
I’ll second the “whatever music you find calming and soothing.” Once, a couple of years ago, when my oldest was in high school and still living at home, we were both doing stuff in the kitchen and listening to music. The selection was my choice, so primarily hard rock. She asked if we could listen to something else, as she had noticed that hard rock tended to make her angry. I commented that I find it relaxing, but agreed to let her pick some other music. She put on some J-pop (Japanese pop, which has English lyrics). It’s very up… Read more »
tam
tam
2 years 5 months ago

If I don’t eat enough carbs at night to last through sleep, I’ll have a lower HRV in the morning.

Poseidon's Bear
Poseidon's Bear
2 years 3 months ago
I read somewhere (can’t remember) that deep breathing is a technique for stimulating the Vagus nerve of the parasympathetic system. Meditation does the same (counting breaths). The relevance of HRV is revealed in this article by the Weston Price co-founder: http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2014/12/17/real-cause-heart-attacks.aspx?e_cid=20141217Z1_DNL_art_1&utm_source=dnl&utm_medium=email&utm_content=art1&utm_campaign=20141217Z1&et_cid=DM62414&et_rid=766804171 Myocardial Infarction (heart attack) is brought on by a suppressed parasympathetic nervous system. The necrosis of the tissue is brought on by a sugar burn leading to lactosis! Guess what else suppresses the PNS? Stress. I found it completely ironic that ” G-strophanthin is an endogenous (made within us) hormone manufactured in our adrenal cortex from cholesterol and therefore… Read more »
Chantal
2 years 2 months ago
I’d love some advice on how yoga should fit into primal fitness plan. I’ve been following marks daily apple for a while and implementing a lot of primal eating. Just finished reading marks book and heading into full primal eating. I want to implement a proper primal fitness routine to but struggling a bit. I currently walk my dogs approx 5 days a week for 20-40 mins (and do some gentle cycling in summer time) so figure that’s my “move slowly covered”. Sprints terrify me but I guess I know what to do with that. Then there is the heavy… Read more »
khushi
khushi
1 year 8 months ago

Hi
My dad age is 60 and his heart rate is 25 to 30 per minute..So anyone can suggest me how to increase his heart rate and which exercise is good for him.

Thanks in advance…

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