Breathing is so natural and so basic that we hardly even notice we are doing it. But did you know you can improve your breathing and in doing so, improve your health? Most of us are often breathing too shallowly, and as a result, are depriving our body and brain of the vital oxygen it needs to thrive. Try breathing a little more deeply and you will take in more oxygen, and you will feel a bit more relaxed and focused.
If you can even out your breathing, make it more consistent and flow more easily, you can improve your heart rate variability (HRV) which comes with a number of benefits for your mind and body.
What is Heart Rate Variability? And Why Should You Care?
So what is HRV? The heart does not beat evenly, like a metronome. There are minute variances in the time between each heart beat. This interval between beats, known as the R-R interval, is continually changing. Heart rate variability measures these changes in time between beats.
HRV was first developed in the 1950s and 60s by the Russians as part of their space development program. It was used to monitor the health of their astronauts. HRV is a non-invasive way to measure the autonomic nervous system (ANS).
The Autonomic Nervous System
The autonomic nervous system has 2 branches. The sympathetic, or “fight or flight”, system and the parasympathetic, or “rest and recover”, system. Take a look at this infographic to see what response each system creates in your body.
Because each system creates a different response in your body, you can get an indication of the state you are currently in with heart rate variability testing. Measuring heart rate variability can provide information on the health of your heart and nervous system, and as a result, can indicate your fitness levels and your ability to handle stress and emotional pressure. Heart rate variability and stress are linked and because of this, your HRV can be a good predictive indicator of overall heart health, including risk of heart attack and other cardiac events.
HRV is related to how you breathe, your blood pressure, your emotions and thoughts. A healthy state for your body is generally associated with a consistently high HRV.
Why Should You Measure HRV?
Would you like to know whether today is a good day to train hard or take it easy? Would you like an idea of whether your stress is affecting your body long term? Measuring heart rate variability can provide you with a good indication of the current state of your system, including your mind, body and emotions.
Inflammation is one of the key parts of the healing process of the body. It tells the body which tissues were damaged. However, it is critical to turn off the inflammatory process once it is no longer beneficial to healing. A body in a constant state of inflammation can lead to a number of diseases and health issues. Inflammation and the immune system are regulated by the ANS. This is why it is important to monitor levels of inflammation in the body. Inflammation is related to chronic diseases including arthritis, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer and depression.
HRV provides a snapshot of the body’s overall ability to regulate inflammation effectively.
A low HRV is indicative of an unbalanced autonomic nervous system, and dominance of the sympathetic, or fight or flight, side of the ANS, which is associated with stress, overtraining and inflammation. If it is a chronic state, it may be considered as an early health warning sign to make some changes as soon as possible, or it could be indicative of chronic health condition you already suffer from.
Low HRV is related to:
- Increased risk of cardiovascular disease
- Longevity in cancer
- Higher risk of metabolic syndrome and diabetes
- Reduced cognitive performance and decision making
- Increased body fat
- Reduced athletic performance
- Reduced aerobic fitness levels
- Stress and fatigue
A low heart rate variability can indicate chronic inflammation, and a body that is less able to protect against the inflammation that occurs from the stress of life, poor sleep, poor nutrition, and over training. This can put you at a higher risk for disease. A low HRV also means you are less likely to recover after a heart attack.
A high heart rate variability generally indicates dominance of the parasympathetic side, which promotes relaxation, digestion, sleep and recovery.
A high HRV indicates:
- Protection against chronic inflammation
- Good cardiovascular fitness
- Improved cognitive ability
- Good mental focus
- More energy, less fatigue
Measuring your HRV daily will not only provide a baseline so you know where you sit each day, but will allow you to check in with your body and be aware of potential problems before they happen. If your HRV is low or dropping you can take steps to bring help it back up.
How to Increase Heart Rate Variability
How that you know the benefits of measuring and improving your HRV you need to know how to go about it. This is where we come back to your breathing.
There are many benefits to controlled, practiced and enhanced breathing, including a clear mind, and quick physical and mental recovery. Slowing your breathing down and taking fewer breaths per minute leverages more lung surface area, and the brain, organs and muscles are supercharged. Aim for 10 or fewer breaths per minute as a guide. Oxygen fuels every part of your body. The better you breathe, the better your overall health will be.
So, how can you improve your breathing? You can start by taking a few minutes each day to focus on your breathing. Try to slow it down and even it out.
Try this simple breathing exercise:
- Set a timer for 5 or 10 minutes.
- Breathe in to a count of 4.
- Breathe out to a count of 4.
- Repeat until your time is up.
- You can add to the count as your breathing improves. Try to build up to a count of 10 over time.
You can also grab an app for your phone that will make this a bit easier for you.
I have used Paced Breathing for Android. You can select how many seconds you want for the in breath and out breath, how long you want to practice for and whether you want to increase the timing throughout your practice. So, for example, you can start at 4 seconds in and out, and ramp it up to 8 seconds throughout your practice. It plays a different tone for the in breath and the out breath so you can follow along easily.
For iOS you can try Breath Pacer.
Here is another breathing exercise to help increase your heart rate variability:
- Breathe deeply and evenly so that your inhalation and exhalation are the same duration. Use a count if you need to.
- Once your breathing is even, imagine or feel your breathing in and out through your heart area.
- As you breathe evenly through your heart, think of a pleasant emotion, such as gratitude, kindness or love (think of a happy time, children, appreciation for the good things in life).
You can practice these exercises anywhere really. Try to do it whenever you remember throughout your day. The more you can maximize your breathing the more improvements you will see.
What Can Improve Heart Rate Variability?
As well as improving your breathing, there are other lifestyle changes that can promote increases in heart rate variability:
- Practicing meditation regularly
- A healthy, whole food diet with low GI, plant based foods
- Regular exercise
- Plenty of quality sleep
- Spending time with good friends and loved ones
On the flip side, what is likely going to decrease HRV?
- Chronic pain
- Lack of sleep
- Junk food, foods high in sugar and processed foods
- Anger, anxiety, loneliness and depression
Not surprisingly, this is all the same general advice we see everywhere on how to be healthy and happy. Let’s take a look next at how you can find out what your heart rate variability is.
How to Measure Heart Rate Variability
So, how do you know what your heart rate variability measurement is and whether you need to improve it? A HRV test is usually done with expensive ECG equipment in hospitals and clinics. You can, however, measure HRV yourself at home with only a small initial outlay. In most cases you will need a heart rate variability monitor that attaches to your chest, and an app for the hrv analysis to translate the raw data into information you can use. Spend a few minutes each morning to take your measurements and you will have a good guide to your overall health and athletic performance.
Let’s take a look at a few different HRV measuring systems you can set up.
Purchase a complete HRV measuring system:
This is a complete system that includes a bluetooth chest strap monitor, and an app and web dashboard. There is also a private community forum for help and lifetime support included. They also provide a 90 day money-back guarantee.
It is recommended that you use this system first thing in the morning. The system measures your HRV and provides you with a number and a color based on your measurement. The colors, green, yellow or red, are a guide to help you work out how hard you should train that day. The guide book provided will help you out with interpreting the HRV number.
This system is ideal for those that want a way to prevent overtraining and to help them figure out when to train hard and when to take it easy.
emWave2 by HeartMath
The emWave2 is a biofeedback device by the HeartMath Institute. It uses a pulse sensor attached to the device that collects data via your thumb or ear, and translates it into light patterns and user-friendly graphics on your computer (Windows or Mac).
The emWave2 is marketed as a biofeedback device to aid in general wellness, primarily relaxation and stress reduction. They claim that its users can benefit in a variety of ways, including less fatigue, anxiety and depression, and improved focus and sleep. It is advised to use this system 1-2 times a day for 10-20 minutes at a time for best results.
This system is ideal for those people who want help with relaxation and regular sitting meditation practice, rather than as a guide to fitness and training. It is more of a stress management system than a direct measurement of HRV.
HeartMath also have the InnerBalance which is an ear sensor that connects to an iOS device (iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch) and an app that collates the data and provides feedback.
Best Heart Rate Variability Monitor
Another way to measure HRV is with a bluetooth heart rate monitor that collects your data and an app that collates and interprets your data. Here are a few of the more popular, and more accurate monitors.
The Polar H7 Heart Rate Monitor is a chest strap monitor that seems to be the best and most accurate for use with the majority of heart rate variability apps available.
Wahoo TICKR X is compatible with most smartphones and GPS watches, and a variety of apps for fitness and HRV.
There are two versions of the HxM. The HxM Smart is for iPhones and some Android apps. The HxM BT is for some Android apps and Windows Phones. You should check for compatibility with any apps you are planning to use.
Best Heart Rate Variability App
The apps mentioned here all work with the heart rate monitors mentioned above. All of them work in a similar way. You take your measurement in the morning at rest. This takes only a few minutes to do. The app then translates the data and gives you a number and a color code to indicate your current state. Green is good, yellow/orange is moderate and red is poor. You track your HRV daily over time to find your baseline and use the colors to determine how easy or hard you should train that day. If your baseline starts out low then you can take the steps you need to improve it.
ithlete (iOS $8.00 and Android)
This app takes only a minute to measure your heart rate variability. Your measurement shows up on the screen straight away. You can also rate your current levels of sleep quality, fatigue, muscle soreness, stress, mood, and diet for your records.
EliteHRV (free on iOS and Android)
The Elite HRV app provides you with information based on your data about your daily readiness to perform, your Autonomic Nervous System balance gauge, and live visual HRV and heart rate biofeedback. It provides you with guided breathing and HRV Training to help you improve your HRV, and has a HRV Team Coaching Platform for gyms, sports teams, health practices and personal trainers. Your data can be viewed on the web platform and you can also export your raw data.
SweetBeatLife (iOS $9.99 and Android)
This app allows users to choose features to track, stress monitoring, HRV for training, or heart rate recovery. After starting a session, the app will show your heart rate, HRV, stress level, and current mood according to the data. There is an EKG-like heart monitor screen, a stats screen and a screen for graphs to see your progress. You can input data from other devices like Fitbit and Withings. You can also use the food sensitivity test to enter the food you eat and track your heart rate after eating allowing you to check for inflammation. It does not allow you to export your raw data, only to view it within the app.
HRV4Training ($8.99 iOS only)
This app works with or without (via your smartphone camera) a chest strap monitor. For the camera reading you need to have an iPhone 5 or later. A Polar H7 is recommended for the chest strap monitor and that can be used on any iOS device with bluetooth. It provides advice based on your HRV measurement. You can view history graphs, stats and add information on your training days. It also allows exporting of data to email.
This is only a small fraction of the HRV apps available to you. The best heart rate variability monitor to use in conjunction with a smartphone app is one that provides accurate R-R Intervals. You should make sure you check the with the developer of your chosen app before purchasing your monitor to ensure accurate measurements and compatibility.
It is best, no matter which HRV tracking system you decide on, to measure your heart rate variability at the same time every day. This helps establish a baseline reading and allows you to notice any changes that may take place. First thing in the morning is usually the best time for measuring.
Tracking HRV gives you a powerful tool to monitor changes in overall inflammation and build your body’s anti-inflammatory pathways to improve health and wellbeing.
Bottom Line (TL;DR)
- Buy the Polar H7 heart rate monitor chest strap and use the EliteHRV app for your measurements.
- Measure your HRV to determine the current state of your body for fitness and general well-being.
- Take your measurements first thing in the morning. Do it every day to help establish your baseline.
- If you have a low HRV baseline, take steps to improve it.
- Breathe, meditate, exercise, sleep and eat healthy food.
Lower heart rate variability is associated with the development of coronary heart disease in individuals with diabetes
Multiple metabolic syndrome is associated with lower heart rate variability
Heart rate variability and myocardial infarction: systematic literature review and metanalysis
Relation of high heart rate variability to healthy longevity
The impact of a new emotional self-management program on stress, emotions, heart rate variability, DHEA and cortisol
Daily exercise prescription on the basis of HR variability among men and women
Heart rate variability and first cardiovascular event in populations without known cardiovascular disease: meta-analysis and dose–response meta-regression
Autonomic Imbalance as a Predictor of Metabolic Risks, Cardiovascular Disease, Diabetes, and Mortality
Using Heart Rate Monitors to Detect Mental Stress
Heart rate variability in athletes
Improvements in heart rate variability with exercise therapy
Heart rate variability in physically active individuals: reliability and gender characteristics
Sound therapy may balance brain signals to reduce blood pressure, migraines
Influence of deep breathing exercise on spontaneous respiratory rate and heart rate variability: a randomised controlled trial in healthy subjects
Heart rate variability biofeedback: how and why does it work?
This material is for general informational purposes only. It is not meant to replace the advice, diagnosis, or treatment by a physician or other health care professional.