Heart rate variability, or HRV, measures the amount of time that elapses between heartbeats. If you’re not familiar with the indicator, you might assume that steady, consistent intervals are best—but that’s not the case. 

“A healthy heart is not a metronome,” wrote the authors of an HRV study published in the journal Frontiers in Public Health. “The oscillations of a healthy heart are complex and non-linear.”

The reason is simple: The best-functioning hearts react to and recover from stressors and soothers quickly, causing heartbeat intervals to vary. That means a high HRV is healthiest.  

Low HRV, on the other hand, is often a marker of poor health. It’s a sign of autonomic nervous system imbalances associated with inflammation, chronic pain, insomnia, fatigue, and other stress-related health problems. Researchers have also found that low HRV correlates with diseases and disorders of the heart, brain, and immune system (1). 

If you’re wondering about your HRV, a monitoring device can help you track how it changes over time. Comparing your HRV scores to people roughly your age and biological sex can also help you determine where you stand from a health and wellness perspective. (Here are some average HRV ranges based on those demographic criteria.)

So, How Do I Improve my HRV?

Fortunately, HRV is not just an indicator of underlying health. It’s also something you can improve in ways that may reduce your risk of a range of medical conditions.

As you might expect, all the tentpoles of a healthy lifestyle support a high HRV. Researchers have found that a nutritious and balanced diet, regular exercise, and good sleep quality are associated with healthy increases in HRV (2, 3). If you’re checking those boxes, there are more ways to improve your HRV score, as well as ways to refine your approach to optimize HRV and overall well-being. 

Ahead, we’ve found the best science-backed ways to increase HRV. Follow this roadmap to create a healthier lifestyle and improve your heart rate variability indicators.

1. Get Better Sleep

Restful, restorative sleep is just about the most important lever for improving HRV and wellbeing. However, a good night’s sleep can be elusive. Stress, worry, busy schedules, and health issues are just a few factors that can make sleep challenging. To break down this important topic, we recommend Dr. Andrew Huberman’s Toolkit for Sleep, a succinct primer on how to improve your sleep.

2. Practice Breathing Exercises

You don’t need to sit in a meditative trance for hours to improve your HRV. Research published in the journal Psychophysiology found that breathing slowly and evenly for just six minutes a day can boost your parasympathetic nervous system. Aim to take about six complete breaths per minute. Your goal is to inhale for four seconds, rest at the top of your inhale for two seconds, and exhale for four seconds. As you inhale, try to inflate your stomach, not your chest.

This simple practice is called slow-paced diaphragmatic breathing, as outlined in our short course. The best part? It can also be used to mitigate symptoms of anxiety, pain, and motion sickness. Try the practice before your morning coffee or on your lunch break—your HRV should increase almost instantly.

3. Find Balance in your Exercise Routine

You already know that exercise is essential for your cardiovascular system, blood pressure, and overall health—and there’s good evidence that both strength training and aerobic exercise can meaningfully improve your heart rate variability (4). That said, there isn’t much research comparing one exercise protocol to another.

However, one thing is clear: rest and recovery are critical for healthy HRV. Studies have found that overtraining can cause a chronic imbalance in nervous system activity that can decrease HRV over time. If you’re training so much that you regularly feel tired or that your ability to complete a workout has fallen off, you likely need to give your body more rest.

On the flip side, if you’re not engaged in regular physical activity, it’s time to start. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends adults ages 18 to 64 years get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity a week (yes, brisk walking counts!) and perform strengthening activities at least two days a week.

4. Stay Hydrated

Multiple studies have found a correlation between poor hydration and reduced HRV. For example, a Scientific Reports clinical study found that even mild dehydration triggered a reduction in HRV in both men and women. Dehydration was also associated with worsening mood, heightened anxiety, and lower brain functioning. The authors of that study attributed these negative changes to dehydration-related effects in the nervous system.

That study did not examine whether regular dehydration could cause a permanent drop in HRV. But if you want to keep your HRV at a healthy level, its findings suggest you should drink plenty of water and other fluids. The U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine determined women should aim for around 11.5 cups a day and men should aim for 15.5 cups. Find a water bottle you love and keep it nearby to remind you to hydrate.

5. Skip the Alcohol

You don’t have to give up your favorite libations completely—but note that they will have an impact on your HRV. A study published in the American Journal of Physiology-Heart and Circulatory Physiology found that while one glass of red wine did not affect HRV, two glasses decreased HRV between 28 and 33 percent. Those effects could last days after your last drink.

6. Eat More Leafy Greens

You knew leafy green vegetables were good for you but did you know they could boost your HRV? A study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition confirmed that they can. Researchers discovered that while a person’s intake of fruit, fish, and other healthy foods didn’t influence HRV, people who ate lots of leafy greens—namely spinach (cooked or raw), kale, mustard greens, and lettuces—had healthier HRV scores. Scan Pinterest to find new recipes you can incorporate into your meal-prep lineup; the USDA recommends 1.5 to two cups of leafy greens a week.

It’s important to note that nutritional recommendations are highly personal, so we encourage everyone to find what works best for you. HRV can be a helpful tool. This article on our Elite HRV blog discusses Using Heart Rate Variability to optimize your diet and nutrition.

7. Improve Your Work-Life Balance

One of the biggest stressors for many people is work. That means you’ll need to improve your work-life balance to boost your HRV. One study published in the journal Industrial Health found that both long commutes (anything more than 90 minutes) and working overtime (anything more than 60 hours per month) are associated with lower HRV scores.

Reducing commute times is hard, but perhaps there are opportunities to reduce commute frequencies from everyday to something lower. On the flip side, remote work can also be stressful when there are no clear boundaries around non-working hours. Setting and managing boundaries require discipline, but doing so can help you prevent burnout and maintain healthy HRV.

Check out this short video from TED, 3 rules for better work-life balance, to explore more solutions for setting boundaries in today’s always-on culture. While you probably can’t ditch your job or commute, assess your current work-life balance to see if there are ways you can improve it, or shape future roles to promote more positive health outcomes.

8. Keep a Gratitude Journal

You’ve probably seen gratitude journals all over the internet. And if you’re looking to improve your HRV, you might want to incorporate one into your routine. A study published in Psychosomatic Medicine found that HRV increased during gratitude journaling exercises.

Starting a journal doesn’t have to be difficult. Simply grab a notepad and create an entry each day with five things you’re thankful for. If you need more direction, answer a prompt: Who is one person you’re grateful for today and why? What are you thankful for in your home? Is there a challenge you’re experiencing that you’re thankful for? The options are endless.

9. Spend Time in Nature

Research shows that spending time in nature improves HRV and reduces stress. The Japanese have a special name for this, “shinrin-yoku,” also known as “forest bathing” and there’s scientific evidence to back it. In this study, researchers studied how walking in the forest versus walking in the city affects our physiology. They found that forest bathing reduced physical markers of stress, lowered blood pressure, and reduced cortisol levels.

Spending time in nature—and especially in green environments like woods or forests—seems to both reduce mental stress and strengthen HRV. To read more about the healing power of forest bathing we recommend the book Forest Bathing: How Trees Can Help You Find Health and Happiness by Qing Li.

10. Start a Yoga Practice

Invite more zen into your life with yoga. One study published in the journal BMC Research found that throughout an eight-week practice of 60 minutes of yoga per week, 9 of 12 participants saw a significant increase in HRV. Stop by your local studio for guidance if you’re new to the practice, or add a 60-minute flow to your routine if you’re more experienced. Doing so will also help you clock in more deep breathing.

11. Try the Acem Meditation Technique

A study published in the European Journal of Preventative Cardiology found that doing just 20 minutes of Acem meditation could increase HRV. To perform this type of meditation, sit in a chair and close your eyes. Next, mentally repeat a meditation sound (you can use a word with meaning, such as “calm,” or a string of letters with no meaning at all). Let your thoughts and feelings flow freely—the technique does not require clearing the mind. Repeat the word until your time is up. (The study looked at 20-minute durations, but any amount of time is better than none)

If you prefer a different type of meditation, that’s fine too. Any technique that decreases stress should do the trick. Other options include walking meditations, forest bathing, or even getting into a state of flow by coloring or crafting.

12. Use a Weighted Blanket

Not only are weighted blankets cozy, but they have many benefits, such as decreasing anxiety and promoting relaxation. They can also help improve HRV while you sleep. A late-breaking study looked at the effects of weighted blankets on patients undergoing wisdom tooth extractions. The research found that those who wore the blankets had higher HRV scores than those who didn’t. Whether you’re undergoing a major procedure or simply heading to dreamland, a weighted blanket could make your experience all the more relaxing and beneficial to your HRV.

That’s a Wrap!

And just like that, we’ve come to the end of this post: 12 tips to improve your HRV. We hope this list has inspired you to experiment, but we can’t possibly end this story here. Here’s one final tip to tie a bow around this series:

Lucky tip 13. Nurture Your Social Relationships

A sense of belonging is one of the nine lifestyle habits shared by residents of the Blue Zones, areas of the world where people consistently live to over 100 years old. The science is clear. Social relationships—both in quantity and quality—affect mental health, physical health, and mortality risk. And, of course, improves heart rate variability.

We are social creatures and isolation produces real physical side effects such as increased risk of inflammation and hypertensionslower wound healing, and poorer sleep efficiency. In one neuroimaging study on social exclusion, entitled, “Does rejection hurt?“, researchers found that “social pain is analogous in its neurocognitive function to physical pain”. So, yes, rejection hurts!

One powerful tool you can try today is having more face-to-face interactions. In this TED talk, psychologist Susan Pinker talks about the research behind face-to-face contact and why the secret to living longer may be your social life.

Your HRV is NOT Fixed

We hope you enjoyed this post and you’ll try one of these methods for yourself. Health and wellbeing is a journey of experimentation and learning what you need to thrive. If there’s one big idea you take away from this it’s that your HRV is NOT fixed. Regardless of what your HRV is today, you can improve it!

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Hear from the Experts on the Science Behind HRV

The Science of Longevity

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Mental Health & HRV

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The Science of Longevity

Dr. Joon Yun

Intro to HRV Biofeedback

Dr. Leah Lagos, Psy.D.

Mental Health & HRV

Dan Quintana, PhD