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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
42 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!

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42 thoughts on “How to Increase Your Heart Rate Variability”

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  1. 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.

    1. 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!

      1. 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

  2. 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.

    1. 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.

    1. 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!

  3. 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. 😉

  4. 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.

    1. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

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

  7. 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 my exercise so I feel like I’m getting something out of them (and there is usually a reward too because they’re how I get stuff done). Today for example I walked to a church café and got a free meal, did some necessary stuff for probation so I don’t get a stupid charge, collected empties, walked half way across town with them, got cheap beer for me and a friend (yeah yeah liquid bread.. it’s my 20%), and was going to bring it back to my friend immediately but decided to switch direction and catch up on some stuff authored by Mark first 🙂 , and I’d just turned about a 90 degree angle and walked for like 2 seconds when I noticed a $10 bill in a parking lot. Score! Now I can likely (Loki?) bring back some herb too. I’ve practically been living off the money and food (and drinks and herbs) I scavenge, find, and am given for over a month. I’ve been procrastinating (in a good way) getting my disability pension checks for the last two months from a city approximately a marathon distance away (flat bike tire, annoyingly long walk) so that when I get them, probably through direct deposit because I just got the info faxed today and my worker seems to think she can cancel the checks and give me the $ that way) I’ll go from practically dirt poor to having around $900. I really only need that to last for two or three weeks. Cloud 9!
    Re: forgiveness. What about revenge instead?
    For example:
    Earlier this summer I was camping just off someone’s property that they own an apartment building on, in a ravine beside it, and he kept telling me he wanted me to move somewhere else. He said it was his property and then I found out it wasn’t and it was legal for me to stay there. I was sleeping on a couch that someone wanted to get rid of that I moved there. I stayed elsewhere for a couple days and then came back to see my couch, clothes, food, and everything else I had there in the dumpster on the apartment building property. I salvaged some food, hoisted the couch out of the dumpster and left it there along with some scattered garbage, because f!@# that piece of s!@#. How could anyone do that to a down and out homeless person who was respectful to them? So, the guy’s got a shed on his apartment property, and it just so happens that if someone were to douse it generously with gasoline and then set it on fire and run, probably in the early AM hours, they could probably get away. There’s a little patch of forest nearby to sprint through, then another in a park a quick sprint after that, or maybe a jog if the person committing the arson gets a little tired after the first leg. It’s fall now and though the dark would provide a lot of cover I think it would be better for me.. I mean whoever happens to plan on doing this.. to wait until next year when there is lots of foliage to provide better cover, and when they don’t have a bunch of stuff to keep them busy for the next couple months already.
    Pranic meditation. Prawnic? I like watching the lobsters in grocery stores. I boiled one alive once. It took a long time to die. I was a bit stressed over that. If I kill and eat one again I’ll probably decapitate it before boiling, and likely try to disembowel it or something to scrape out the nasty stuff that I think was partially digested food/crap.
    I haven’t been too stressed lately. Sure, I’m going to court early next month and am 100% sure that I’ll be doing about a month of jail time, which is awful, but in the meantime I’m living fairly well (maybe indulging slightly excessively, but not as much as is common for me), and have a friend to spend a lot of quality time with and stay with, which has been really good for me lately. We take care of each other and provide each other with food/material things/beer/wine/”greens”. On that note I guess I can be assuaged that my genetics have not influenced me to mess them up too much and they can rest assured that they’ve fulfilled their purpose and haven’t let down evolution, because she’s pregnant. This is a first for me. I’ll never see my little minion though because she’s getting it aborted soon. I’m not happy about that (though admittedly not overly upset either) but we both agree it’s probably the best thing to do. There are many complications that would make raising a child well difficult, she’s practically a chain smoker, and we’ve been drinking a lot together so I doubt my potential offspring would get a good start in life.

    1. 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…

    2. 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.

    3. 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.

  8. 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 gives me the green/amber/red lights as to whether to train or not. There have been days where I was given the amber or red indicators (which mean go easy or take a day off) that ordinarily I would have trained. By resting up I’m generally in the green zone the next day and ready to go again. I’ve been making more progress with my kettlebells too.

  9. 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.

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

    Forgiveness is important. Otherwise, we’re toxic.

  11. 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 mean it will work the same for you. If you find the idea of taking a Yoga class scary and uncomfortable and you are dragged there kicking and screaming then it might not help increase your HRV.

    Also, I would add Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers by Robert Sapolsky to the reading list.

  12. 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?

    1. 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.

  13. 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 :
    https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.tremend.respiroguide&hl=fr_FR
    For IPhone :
    https://itunes.apple.com/fr/app/respirelax/id515900420?mt=8

    Dr.David O’Hare is the “specialist” of this very effective method to calm down deeply, relax and focus, fight against the excess cortisol, super !! I am very happy to share this with you, it made me and always makes me so much good ! 🙂
    Isabelle

  14. 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 tempo, happy music and she was being pleasant company. However, after about 10 minutes, I noticed that my temper was quickly ramping up. I told her that we either needed to find something that we could both stand to listen to, or both wear headphones so we could listen to our own thing, because if I had to keep listening to that, I was going to kill someone. The music was like nails on a chalkboard for me!

    So she introduced me to dubstep, which is a sub-genre of electronica. I was hooked, and we were able to relax and enjoy each other’s company.

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

  16. 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 inhibited by statin drugs”. What is ironic is that the adrenal cortex is also the where cortisol is released – the stress hormone.

    Sigh.

  17. 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 lifting. I used to do some lifting at gym but stopped a while ago. The past 3 months I have been doing yoga most days. Mainly Hatha with one 45 min Astanga class. The ashtanga is hard work and gets me breaking quite a sweat. The Hatha doesnt have that cardio stress but is holding positions for a good while in a way that is exerting and all that plank holding and the like definitely has been building core and other muscles.

    Soooooo my problem is I haven’t the time to add sprints and lifting on top of all this so I need to cut back as well as integrate. If I leave some yoga in does it count towards the other elements? Does Ashtanga count as a sprint session or is it just chronic cardio? Does some of the Hatha count towards lifting on the grounds it increases strength?

    I’d really appreciate any advice!!!

  18. 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…

  19. Alternate nostril breathing should begin with inhale through left nostril, not right (unless you want to shift into the sympathetic and this is not usually what is required)