#296 17 Ways to Increase Your Heart Rate Variability and Life Expectancy
Dr. John Day
Dr. Day is a cardiologist specializing in heart rhythm abnormalities at St. Mark’s Hospital in Salt Lake City, Utah. He graduated from Johns Hopkins Medical School and completed his residency and fellowships in cardiology and cardiac electrophysiology at Stanford University. He is the former president of the Heart Rhythm Society and the Utah chapter of the American College of Cardiology.
17 Ways to Increase Your Heart Rate Variability and Life Expectancy
Your heart rate variability (HRV) number may be the single best predictor of your overall health, fitness, and longevity. Your HRV number, and how far it strays from your baseline, can tell you how much mental or physical stress your heart is seeing. In this article, I will teach you how to determine your HRV number in five minutes and then how to increase your heart rate variability.
For a background on what HRV is and why it matters, please read my previous post: 5 Reasons Why You Need to Know Your Heart Rate Variability Number. The bottom line here is that if your HRV number is low, your risk of a heart attack, arrhythmias including atrial fibrillation, heart failure, strokes, dementia, etc. all increase significantly.
How to Determine Your HRV in 5 Minutes
Step 1: Follow this link to download the free Welltory app from iTunes or Google Play.
Step 2: Sign in to the app from your phone.
Step 3: Click on “measure now” at the top of the screen.
Step 4: Cover the camera and light on your phone with your finger and then watch your heart beats in real time as the app measures your heart rate variability (HRV).
The Best Way to Track Your HRV
The Welltory app is a great option for the first 5 days of the free trial period. After 5 days, they block the most important data unless you agree to pay very high recurring fees to continue to get all of the information.
If you find HRV helpful, long-term I recommend the free Elite HRV app. Please be aware that you can’t use your phone’s camera for the Elite HRV app. While Elite HRV has no recurring fees, you will need to purchase either a chest strap or finger monitor for around $100 USD. The details can all be found on the Elite HRV website.
Can you use your smartwatch to measure HRV?
Since so many of us now wear smartwatches to track our workouts, wouldn’t it be great if we could just take this HRV number from our smartwatch? I tried doing this with my Apple Watch and my HRV number came back really low…
Even though smartwatches have built-in HRV measuring features, smartwatch HRV numbers are notoriously inaccurate. It is just too hard for the watch to measure HRV from your wrist as you are moving around during the day. If you really want to use your smartwatch to measure heart rate variability, then you need to do a manual measurement with your wrist as still as possible. Fortunately, with a manual measurement, I was able to get a much better HRV number off my Apple Watch.
How do consumer HRV products compare to medical grade HRV equipment?
Of course, whatever consumer products you use probably won’t be as accurate as what your cardiologist can measure. However, as consumer HRV products have continued to improve, studies show that these consumer HRV products do a pretty reasonable job as long as you are at rest. If your goal is to see your exercise HRV then you will need to find a specialized lab that can measure this for you. My personal opinion is that resting HRV is good enough to track your health.
What is your HRV goal number?
If you want to maximize your chances for a long and healthy life you need your SDNN heart rate variability number above 70. If your number comes up below 70 then your risk of arrhythmias, heart failure, heart attacks, cancer, premature death, etc. all goes way up.
Please don’t get too caught up in trying to achieve this number. The real goal is to take your baseline measurement and then try to improve this number over time with the 17 suggestions I provide in this article.
How do heart medications affect HRV?
Following my first article on HRV, I was flooded with many questions about how heart medications affect HRV. In general, anything that slows your heart rate (also known as your pulse) will probably increase your HRV. While this seems counterintuitive, let me explain.
With a slower heart rate, there is more time between each heartbeat. Thus, there is more time for beat to beat variability. In contrast, with a high heart rate, there is less time between each heartbeat so there are fewer opportunities for variability.
Thus, while HRV may decrease with a heart medication that slows your heart rate (pulse), no one knows what this really means. If you are on heart meds which slow your heart rate (pulse), I would suggest measuring your baseline “medicated” HRV number and then work to decrease this number over time by the 17 things discussed later in this article.
Does HRV decrease with age?
Sadly, studies show that for most people heart rate variability decreases as part of the aging process. Perhaps this helps to explain why cardiovascular disease also increases with age. But it doesn’t have to be this way.
Our 5-year study of the people living in China’s Longevity Village, as described in our best-selling book The Longevity Plan, showed that aging doesn’t have to bring disease and disability. Indeed, people living to 100 and beyond can still practice martial arts, hike mountains, and live independently. And it probably wouldn’t surprise you to also learn that these people also had a much higher HRV number than people half their age living in the US.
What is the relationship between HRV and arrhythmias?
Provided your heart is in rhythm (HRV numbers aren’t so accurate if your heart is out of rhythm), your risk of arrhythmias go up on the days when your HRV is running low. With regards to the most common arrhythmia, atrial fibrillation, when the body is under significant mental or physical stress the heart is much more likely to go out of rhythm. Thus, as a low HRV is a marker for either high mental or physical stress, it only makes sense that a low HRV increases the atrial fibrillation risk.
17 Ways to Increase Your Heart Rate Variability and Life Expectancy
For those of you who desire better health and energy now, here are my 17 scientifically proven ways to increase your heart rate variability. Are you ready to start optimizing your HRV?
1. Bump up Your Exercise Time
Exercise has a profound beneficial effect on your autonomic nervous system. Your autonomic nervous system is the part of your nervous system that controls bodily functions like heart rate (pulse), blood pressure, digestion, etc. Indeed, studies show that regular daily exercise is probably the single best way to boost your HRV number. And recent studies show that not exercising may even be worse for your health and longevity than smoking!
Interestingly, if you do a “killer” workout you will probably see an immediate drop in your HRV as your body recovers. However, after the recovery period, your HRV then goes up over time.
World class athletes also use HRV in another way. If their HRV is low for the day, they will dial back their exercise to prevent injuries. Conversely, if HRV is high they will go “all out” on those high HRV days.
When it comes to making exercise a daily routine, the biggest challenge is self-discipline. To help overcome all of the excuses as to why you can’t exercise consistently, please check out this article I wrote: The 10 Best Excuses Not to Exercise.
Of all the ways to quiet your “fight or flight” sympathetic response, yoga has to be at the top of the list. I have seen countless examples in my practice where yoga alone put arrhythmias into remission. And when it comes to your HRV number, studies show that yoga can move your HRV number upward.
3. Intermittent Fasting
Fasting offers many health benefits. When you are fasting your body goes into repair mode.
While fasting, the “rest and digest” or parasympathetic nervous system is in control. In our stressed-out modern world, we need more parasympathetic influence to counterbalance the overly stimulated sympathetic nervous system.
As studies from our hospital have shown that intermittent fasting may decrease your risk of heart disease, it should come as no surprise that intermittent fasting has been shown to increase your HRV.
If you want to learn more about intermittent fasting, here is a great article I wrote on intermittent fasting and longevity.
4. Eat More Green Leafy Vegetables
Dietary advice can be so confusing. What is clear though is that the more green leafy vegetables you eat, the better your health and longevity will be. Indeed, studies show that green leafy vegetable “superfoods” also boost your HRV.
5. Optimize Your Sleep
Optimizing sleep can be hard. I know as I have struggled with insomnia now for the last 35 years. What is clear from studies is that when sleep is optimized, HRV goes up.
Personally, I have found that if my HRV is running low at night from significant mental stress during the day, I find it hard to sleep. Thus, a low HRV in the evening from a stressful day at work tells me that I need an evening workout for optimal sleep at night. If you want to read more about what I have done to help optimize my sleep, here is a great article: 10 Things Great Sleepers Do.
6. Daily Meditation
In addition to yoga, meditation has a profound beneficial effect on your autonomic nervous system. Meditation isn’t some new age “woo woo” thing. Rather, it is merely a way of bringing your thoughts back and avoiding mental distractions.
For me, meditation is simply closing my eyes, clearing my mind, and taking slow deep abdominal breaths. Most world class CEOs and athletes meditate for optimal performance. And you can too if you want to boost HRV according to studies.
7. Slow Deep Breathing
If meditation isn’t your thing, then try regularly taking slow deep abdominal breaths. If you wear an Apple Watch it will remind you to do this periodically during the day.
If you want to see what taking slow deep breaths can do, try watching your HRV in real time with the Welltory HRV app as you take these slow deep breaths. When it comes to scientific studies, slow deep breathing improves HRV.
8. Decrease Commuting Time
According to many studies, long commutes to work is the number one thing that makes people unhappy. And that unhappiness has a direct effect on HRV. Thus, to improve HRV according to studies, you need to decrease the time you spend in your car or taking public transportation.
9. Eat More Omega 3 Foods
Perhaps because of the anti-inflammatory properties, eating more omega 3 foods may also increase your heart rate variability. As a diet high in omega 3s has helped me, I eat a small piece of wild salmon on most mornings as well as a heaping amount of flax and chia seeds mixed in with my various nut and seed butters.
10. Practice Forgiveness
There is something magical that happens to our cardiovascular system when we let go of previous hurts. Through the healing process of forgiveness, we can reprogram the impact of the autonomic nervous system on our cardiovascular system and boost our HRV.
11. Listen to Calming Music
Calming music has been shown to quiet the fight or flight response and increase HRV. The key to this music benefit is that the fight or flight response (sympathetic nervous system) must be quieted so it can’t be pounding heavy metal or rap music.
12. Healthy Work Environment
Work for many is where we spend the majority of our day. If work is stressful then it will take a toll on your autonomic nervous system and lower your heart rate variability. However, if you have created a healthy work environment then studies show this may increase your heart rate variability.
13. Minimize any Overtime at Work
Even if you love your job, spending too much time at work takes a toll on your autonomic nervous system and lowers your HRV. Indeed, studies show that by minimizing any overtime at work you may also increase your heart rate variability.
14. Avoid Shift Work
While we are on the topic of work and HRV, studies show that avoiding shift work is another way to increase your heart rate variability. The reason for this is that shift work disrupts your circadian rhythm. And anything that disrupts your circadian rhythm will have a negative impact on HRV.
As a cardiologist who is on call 24 hours straight at least six days a month, I can tell you that my HRV number is usually much lower than baseline levels when I am on call. As doctors have to be on call for off-hour emergencies, it is especially important that I do every healing thing possible to increase my heart rate variability on the days when I am not on call.
15. Tai Chi
Like yoga, tai chi is a fantastic way to heal both the body and the mind. And this healing increases your heart rate variability according to studies. Thus, if yoga doesn’t work for you then try tai chi instead.
16. Spend More Time in Nature
Nature heals us. There is something so wonderful that happens when we forget the stresses of the modern world and return back to nature. This healing also has a tremendous benefit to your cardiovascular system that will likely increase your heart rate variability.
For me, my daily workout in nature is my antidepressant. Indeed, right up there with my family, it is probably the one thing that helps keep me sane when stress levels are high.
Prayer is a fantastic way to express our gratitude and turn our worries over to a supreme creator. By practicing gratitude and outsourcing our worries, our hearts are not only healed but studies show that this may also increase your heart rate variability.
Disclaimer Policy: This website is intended to give general information and does not provide medical advice. This website does not create a doctor-patient relationship between you and Dr. John Day. If you have a medical problem, immediately contact your healthcare provider. Information on this website is not intended to diagnose or treat any condition. Dr. John Day is not responsible for any losses, damages or claims that may result from your medical decisions.
Thanks for explaining HRV and its importance. I’ve been on a plant based diet for over 3 months but just barely started moving around and exercising. At 43 my average heart rate is in the 80s – 90s which I need to work on. I can now see my SDNN starting to improve with the Welltory app (SDNN currently in the 30s) and I have a long way to go.
My question is about the MxDMn parameter which is ALWAYS bad and maxes out at .2 no matter how many times I have taken a reading. Is this something I should be concerned about?
I did the measurement, but didn’t see any numbers labeled heart rate variability.
Absolutely brilliant. Sooo helpful and honest. God bless you.
Been following you for some time Dr. Day. I currently work with Hopkins Cardiology and I intend to share your suggestions with them. Thank you for your continued series.
Thanks for the low HRV comment about Apple Watch, I have been concerned by my low numbers mixed with higher ones, will try the breathe app for comparison.