- Heart Rate Variability: What You Need to Know
- 14 Lifestyle Hacks I’ve Used to Increase My Heart Rate Variability
- Other Methods of Increasing HRV
- Frequently Asked Questions
- Wrap-Up and Final Thoughts
The other day, I looked at the biometric data captured by my WHOOP strap back in early 2019, which was shortly after I started using the device to track my fitness and sleep.
One thing I noticed was that my average heart rate variability (HRV) was about 20 milliseconds lower than it is today. In other words, I’ve seen a significant improvement in HRV in only a few years, despite getting older. (HRV naturally declines with age.)
As a result of this discovery, I decided to analyze the lifestyle changes and performance tweaks I’ve implemented since 2019 to try and identify the ones that have most likely contributed to my increase in HRV.
In this article, I’ll share my findings and list the top 14 hacks I’ve used to increase my HRV.
Before we get into the weeds, let’s talk about a few fundamental things, including:
- What is HRV?
- Why is HRV important?
- How can you measure HRV?
- How does your HRV change as you age?
- Why shouldn’t you compare your HRV to someone else’s?
- Why you might see an even greater improvement than I did from implementing the tips below.
Heart Rate Variability: What You Need to Know
Heart rate variability is the difference in timing between heartbeats (also known as RR intervals).
For example, let’s say your heart beats at a rate of 60 times per minute. Although there are 60 seconds in a minute, your heart doesn’t necessarily beat exactly once per second — there’s a slight variation in that timing, which is expressed in milliseconds.
That variation in timing is called HRV.
Why Is HRV Important?
Measuring HRV is important because it gives you an indication of how your autonomic nervous system is doing. More specifically, it’s a reflection of your cardiac vagal tone, telling you how balanced your nervous system’s sympathetic and parasympathetic branches are.
The autonomic nervous system regulates certain body processes, such as blood pressure and the rate of breathing. This system works automatically (autonomously), without a person’s conscious effort.
It’s normal for these two branches to be in constant competition with each other; that’s what causes the differences in timing between heart beats.
Think of it like a game of tug of war: the more balanced this competition is, the higher your HRV is. But if one side is overly active, you can see a decline in HRV.
That’s important because the sympathetic branch of your nervous system is responsible for your fight or flight response (i.e., your stress response), whereas the parasympathetic branch is responsible for resting and digesting.
As such, a low HRV can be a sign that your body is spending too much time in a heightened state of stress. And while such a response is normal and useful when (for example) you’re recovering from an intense workout, it can cause health issues if it becomes chronic.
Because of this, it’s useful to keep tabs on your HRV so you can see trends and adjust your lifestyle, workout regime and stress management strategies accordingly.
How HRV Is Related to Fitness
Your heart rate variability does not directly reflect your level of fitness. In other words, the fact that someone has a higher HRV than you doesn’t necessarily mean they’re fitter than you.
However, if your HRV is low (compared to your baseline) when you’re not actively engaged in a sympathetic activity (such as a strenuous workout or parachuting out of an airplane), it’s a sign that your body is working hard for some other reason, such as fatigue, illness, stress or overtraining. And if that’s the case, you’ll likely have fewer resources at your disposal to crush your next workout.
Another crucial aspect of interpreting your HRV data is that most gadgets measure the root mean square of successive differences between normal heartbeats (RMSSD) by first calculating each successive time difference between heartbeats in milliseconds. Then, each of the values is squared and the result is averaged before the square root of the total is obtained.
Most people think that an RMSSD reading of 200 ms is twice as good as one of 100 ms. But that’s not correct, because RMSSD is a geometric scale, as Roy Dalle Vedove of hrvhealth.org pointed out in a comment on this article. So an HRV of 200 ms is only about 15% better than an HRV of 100 ms.
Dalle Vedove further explained that:
“A higher RMSSD figure is not always good. A person with a heart condition will have a very high figure, often in excess of 300. There are signals within the data that indicate when the person has a heart condition, and this is evident in the Poincaré plot, which is a graph that displays the regularity of the variation in the inter-beat intervals (IBI).
For example, someone with a pulse rate of 60 beats per minute might have an IBI that goes from 900 ms – 1100 ms – 900 ms – 1100 ms, or from 850 ms – 1050 ms – 950 ms – 1150 ms. The former is metronomic, and ideal. The latter, less so. Ideally, the Poincaré plot, when viewed, should be cigar-shaped. When it is circular, there is an issue.
This is where it starts to get interesting. Athletes who cycle will often have higher HRV numbers than CrossFit athletes or bodybuilders, but the Poincaré plot of cyclists is frequently not great looking, and certainly not as good as those of people whose exercise does not put the same degree of stress on the heart.”— Roy Dalle Vedove
The point is that you shouldn’t get discouraged if your HRV hovers around 50 ms while your buddy’s averages around 80 ms, because the absolute difference between those two readings is only a few percentage points.
How and When Should You Measure HRV?
HRV is a highly volatile metric that constantly changes based on external influences. That’s why it only makes sense to measure it for analytical purposes in a controlled environment with minimal distractions and a heart rate that is close to your resting heart rate. That’s why WHOOP measures HRV during deep sleep to calculate a recovery score each morning. Being in deep sleep ensures that there are no influencing factors involved.
I use my WHOOP strap as well as my Pod Pro by Eight Sleep (a temperature-controlled smart mattress) to keep tabs on my HRV trends. By doing so every night, I can see changes in my HRV over time and correlate those changes with lifestyle factors to see what’s working and what isn’t.
What Is a Normal Heart Rate Variability?
I’m very competitive. And if you are too, it’s all too easy to start comparing your HRV data with other people’s.
Don’t do that!
HRV is a highly personal metric that’s influenced by age (the older you get, the lower your HRV will be), genetic factors and lifestyle choices.
For example, some of the younger athletes at my CrossFit box have HRV readings of above 200. But they’re 20 years younger than I am, and I’ll probably never have that high of an HRV, just because of my age. (For reference, an HRV of 200 would be considered an outlier, similar to a resting heart rate of 40.)
The purpose of this article is to help you improve your HRV compared to your baseline, not compared to someone else’s baseline. In other words, monitor your HRV trend over time. If you see a positive trend, you’re on the right track.
It’s also worth noting that I had already implemented many of the tips I’m sharing with you in this article long before I started measuring my HRV. So chances are that my HRV used to be lower a few years ago when I was on a Standard American Diet, didn’t protect my sleep the way I do now, and didn’t exercise regularly.
I’m telling you this because I’m convinced that if you haven’t already implemented most of the tips from this article, you might see even greater improvements than I have.
With that said, let’s get to the 13 tips!
14 Lifestyle Hacks I’ve Used to Increase My Heart Rate Variability
While the list below isn’t in any particular order as far as priority is concerned, I recommend practicing most of them on a daily basis, if possible.
1. Follow a Species-Appropriate Diet
Humans evolved on a predominantly animal-based diet, and I’ve been experimenting with various versions of that, including paleo, ketogenic and carnivore diets.
After a few years of trial and error, I discovered that I perform best with an animal-based diet that’s centered around a nose-to-tail approach to food and complemented with seasonal fruits, raw honey and some of the least-toxic vegetables.
Despite having been on a very low-carb ketogenic diet for over two years, I’ve discovered that consuming more carbs than I had in the past would lead to an increase in HRV by 3 milliseconds (on average).
As a result, I recommend getting most of your calories from muscle and organ meat of pasture-raised animals because these are excellent sources of healthy fats, high-quality proteins and bio-available micronutrients, including vitamins and minerals.
Organ meats are a particularly rich source of nutrients, which is why I highly recommend making them a regular part of your diet. You can learn more about the benefits of consuming organ meat in this article. However, if you can’t stomach the thought of eating fresh organs, I encourage you to supplement with freeze-dried organs instead.
But it’s not only important what you eat — meal timing plays a crucial role as well. For example, I’ve noticed that having late meals (within one to two hours of bedtime) decreases my HRV by an average of 10 milliseconds.
That’s why I recommend leaving at least three hours between your last meal and your bedtime: doing so gives your body ample time to digest the food, setting your body up to perform optimally — which will be reflected in your HRV.
If you’re not sure exactly which animal-based dietary framework to follow, you can read my article on the difference between paleo, keto and carnivore.
2. Make Sure You Stay Hydrated
Everyone knows that staying hydrated is important for the body to function optimally. However, hydration becomes even more important if you follow a low-carb diet, such as a ketogenic diet.
That’s because when you don’t consume a lot of carbs your insulin levels remain low and your body will continuously access its glycogen stores as a source of glucose. Both factors lead to increased urination, and every time you pee you flush out electrolytes such as sodium, magnesium, potassium and calcium.
In turn, that can lead to an electrolyte imbalance.
To prevent this, I recommend drinking enough water and to consider leveraging an electrolyte supplement (such as LMNT, which is the one I use).
To judge whether or not you’re well-hydrated, just look at your urine. If it’s clear or pale yellow, you’re in good shape. If it’s dark yellow, you need to drink more water. If it’s brown, you’re having kidney issues and should see a doctor.
However, while drinking enough water is critical, drinking more water than your body needs can be counter-productive. If you overdrink, you’ll pee more often and thus flush out more electrolytes. So don’t overdo it!
Based on my WHOOP data, I’ve noticed that on days when I hydrate appropriately, my HRV increases by an average of 12 milliseconds.
3. Manage Your Alcohol Intake
It shouldn’t really come as a surprise that consuming alcohol lowers your HRV. In my case, just a glass or two of red wine in the evening lowers my HRV by 14 milliseconds.
On the rare occasions when I indulge in a third glass of wine, my HRV tanks significantly.
So the bottom line is that consuming alcohol negatively impacts your parasympathetic nervous system, and that results in a lower HRV.
On a side note, consuming alcohol doesn’t help with sleep. While it might make you sleepy, it actually decreases the quality of your sleep by disrupting your deep (REM) sleep.
It’s also worth noting that the consumption of alcohol might actually impact your HRV for four to five days, based on data from WHOOP members. That’s significant because it means you can permanently lower your HRV by drinking once or twice a week.
4. Expose Yourself to Sunlight Every Day
Sunlight has a significant impact on your circadian rhythm and overall well-being. It enables the body to make certain vitamins (such as vitamin D), and it influences the release of hormones, including cortisol in the morning and melatonin in the evening.
I recommend exposing yourself to sunlight in the morning, during the day and in the evening, because the sun radiates light in different frequencies throughout the day.
For example, the frequencies of sunlight in the morning help our bodies to get going, the frequencies during the day help with the production of vitamin D, and the frequencies in the evening help the body to wind down and start producing sleep-inducing hormones.
By keeping your body in sync with natural light, you support all of the chemical processes that are going on inside it. And doing so will be reflected in your HRV.
5. Support Your Circadian Rhythm
Closely related to #4 is your circadian rhythm — an internal clock that every cell in your body follows. By supporting this natural rhythm instead of getting in the way of it, you can help your body to perform optimally.
I’ve noticed that maintaining a consistent bed and wake time not only improves the quality of my sleep and my performance during the day, but also supports my parasympathetic nervous system, which results in an increased HRV score.
Also, as I mentioned above, don’t consume food too close to bedtime or after sunset.
If you follow these rules, you can optimally support your circadian rhythm and you’ll reap the benefits by having more energy during the day and a higher HRV.
6. Protect Your Sleep
I consider sleep the foundation of a healthy lifestyle, and I’ve noticed that the more restorative sleep I get, the higher my HRV gets over time.
Deep sleep is particularly important because it helps the body recover physically from the stressors (like high-intensity exercise) you were exposed to during the day.
Additionally, I’ve seen great improvements in my HRV and sleep quality overall by better controlling the ambient temperature at night.
That’s because your body’s core temperature changes several times throughout the night, and the more you can do to support these temperature changes, the better your sleep will be — and the higher your chances are of increasing your HRV.
A few months ago, my wife and I got a temperature-controlled smart mattress, the Pod Pro by Eight Sleep (read my full Pod Pro review). The Pod Pro allows us to have a different temperature setting for each of the stages of sleep, including bed time, deep sleep, REM sleep and wake-up time.
Since then, we both have experienced a dramatic increase in sleep quality. We feel subjectively better in the morning, and our HRV has improved as well.
That’s when I realized how important it is to control the temperature (both in the bedroom as well as under the sheets).
7. Manage Mental Stress
Considering that there’s an entire branch of the autonomic nervous system dedicated to responding to stress, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that stress has a major influence on your HRV.
For example, I’ve noticed that on days when I do everything right in terms of nutrition, hydration and sleep, I might still wake up with a lower-than-expected HRV if I was stressed out the day before.
Another good example is my wife, who always experiences a drop in HRV right before traveling. That’s because she gets stressed by all the things she has to take care of before a trip.
The good news is there are ways you can better manage stress to lessen its impact on your HRV.
A few of the techniques that have worked for me include:
- Deep breathing.
- Brain dumping my thoughts instead of letting them clutter up my brain.
- Tactile stimulation. (See my reviews of Apollo Neuro and TouchPoints for more information.)
- Reconnecting with nature (see below).
I’ve also recently started experimenting with CalmiGo, a deep breathing device that combines breathing with scents and other stimuli to help you calm down.
You can learn more about CalmiGo (and the other devices I mentioned above) in my roundup of the best gadgets for stress relief.
Another interesting tool I’ve stumbled across is HANU. It’s an app paired with a chest strap heart rate monitor (e.g., a Polar H10) to monitor your heart rate and HRV in real time. The app also sends you notifications when it detects rising stress levels and suggests counter-measures, such as breathing exercises.
WHOOP also recently added a stress monitor to its mobile app, which provides real-time insights and notifications if your stress levels spike. The app includes a curated library of guided breathing exercises that the company developed with famed neuroscientist Dr. Andrew Huberman.
8. Reconnect With Nature
Much like consuming an animal-based diet, humans have evolved by being in close contact with nature.
I’ve discovered that spending time outdoors and being in close contact with plants, animals and the soil has a positive effect on my overall well-being and my ability to handle stress. As a result, my body has become more resilient and able to better handle stress.
For me, reconnecting with nature means taking my shoes, socks and shirt off (we have neighbors, so my pants have to stay on) and spending time in my backyard, sitting in the grass, interacting with our chickens or watching our bees collect nectar and pollen.
In fact, I just returned from cuddling our rooster Cacique because I needed a break from writing. Just 20 minutes outside gave me the energy and mental calmness to continue writing this article.
9. Exercise Vigorously and Lift Heavy
While strenuous physical activity is a stressor, it helps the body to repair, adapt and come out stronger on the other side. That adaptation is what improves your response to physical stimuli, leading to an increased HRV.
In fact, studies have shown that regular exercise is one of the best ways to improve your heart rate variability.
While there are different types of workout regimens, I suggest you do what our ancestors did throughout human evolution, including:
- Walk long distances.
- Partake in high-intensity workouts, such as CrossFit (unless you want to keep it real and fight a wild animal instead).
- Lift heavy weights.
All of these options reflect how humans have conditioned themselves over millions of years. And they’re the best ways to improve your HRV.
10. Practice Intermittent Fasting
Among all of the hacks above, intermittent fasting has had the most profound impact on my HRV. When you fast for extended periods, your body goes into preservation mode and starts executing ancient cell maintenance programs, such as autophagy.
By doing so, the parasympathetic nervous system becomes temporarily more active, leading to an increase in HRV.
While some of the crazy spikes in HRV I’ve seen during my 24 to 48-hour fasts are temporary, incorporating shorter intermittent fasts into your lifestyle can improve your health and lead to meaningful increases in HRV.
Much as with overtraining, you can overdo fasting, weakening your body and leading to a lower HRV.
If you want to learn more about fasting and its benefits, check out my ultimate guide on intermittent fasting. If you’ve tried it but struggled with discomfort, read this guide on how to curb your hunger while fasting.
11. Expose Your Body to Cold Water
The reason why cold plunging can help increase your HRV is because jumping into a tub filled with cold water up-regulates your sympathetic nervous system.
In other words, your body goes into a fight or flight response.
But as you learn to control your initial panic reaction in the water, you’ll also be able to apply the same calming techniques in other everyday situations. In essence, cold plunging teaches you to better manage stress, which can suppress your parasympathetic response and thus increase your HRV.
If you’re not quite ready for cold plunging, start by taking cold showers every day!
12. Breathe Intentionally
One of the best ways to directly influence your central nervous system is through intentional breathing, which can both up-regulate and down-regulate the sympathetic and parasympathetic branches of your nervous system.
For example, I use a box-breathing technique while I’m in the cold plunge, and a fast-paced breathing pattern (called fire breathing) before workouts or when I feel low on energy. So depending on how I want to influence my nervous system, I use different breathing patterns and lengths.
One of the best tools I’ve found for learning about different breathing techniques is an app called Othership, which helps you discover different (guided) breathing techniques based on what you’re trying to accomplish. There are hundreds of sessions and journeys, and you can filter them based on the type of breath work you’re looking for, session lengths, your goals and other criteria.
For example, there are dozens of breath work exercises that are meant to relax you before bedtime and help you fall asleep quicker.
If you’re not breathing with intention yet, I highly recommend you give it a try and see how it impacts your HRV.
Meditation is another excellent tool to help you better manage stress and keep the sympathetic branch of your nervous system in check when it’s not needed. (That, in turn, allows the parasympathetic branch to be more active, resulting in an increased HRV).
I’ve been using mindfulness and meditation as a way to improve my overall health and well-being, with the support of Muse S (a brain-sending headband).
14. Leverage the Power of Ketones
There is scientific evidence that suggests that a very low-calorie ketogenic diet can increase heart rate variability.
While I haven’t tested this, I have noticed improvements in sleep quality and elevated HRV readings when I consume exogenous ketones (i.e., ketone supplements, such as the SnakeWater healthy energy drink pictured above).
I suspect that the reason for elevated HRV readings after consuming exogenous ketones is that ketones can reduce oxidative stress and inflammation. Lower stress and inflammation can lead to muting of the sympathetic nervous system and thus higher HRV readings.
Here’s a list of the best exogenous ketone supplements if you want to give it a try.
Other Methods of Increasing HRV
The 14 hacks I mentioned in this article are the ones I’ve made part of my lifestyle. However, there are other methods that are also worth exploring, including gratitude journaling.
Based on data from WHOOP and independent studies, writing down what you’re grateful for can elicit a corresponding uptick in HRV. That’s another thing on my list to try!
If you’ve found any other hacks, tips or tricks that have improved your average HRV, let me know in the comments!
Frequently Asked Questions
Observational studies have shown that a low heart rate variability is associated with an increased risk of diabetes, high blood pressure (hypertension), and cardiovascular disease (CVD). While that doesn’t mean that a low HRV causes these issues, it might be an indication that certain lifestyle choices (alcohol consumption, poor diet, lack of sleep, etc.) play a role in increasing the risk factors for such health issues.
As a result, I recommend implementing most of the tips I’ve shared in this blog post, which I believe will help you reduce your risk factors and increase your HRV.
That depends on what your personal HRV potential (or HRV baseline) is. For me, anything above 70 milliseconds is good, because my current average is around 60 milliseconds. In other words, nobody can give you a generalized answer or a single number because HRV is such a personal metric.
However, familiarizing yourself with the average HRV by age and gender can be helpful for determining whether your HRV currently falls into a “normal” range.
Any type of regular exercise (aerobic and anaerobic) can lead to an increase in HRV. The important part is to train in a way that allows your body to recover in between training sessions. Using your HRV data as a guideline is an excellent way to ensure you’re getting the right balance of intensity and recovery.
Yes, there appears to be an inverse correlation between HRV and RHR. Personally, I’ve noticed that on days when my body is having a hard time responding to certain stressors, my HRV goes down while my RHR goes up.
HRV training accounts for changes in your HRV in order to better plan periods of rest and recovery. Studies have shown that you can effectively improve your cardiorespiratory fitness by using HRV for daily training prescription.
Yes, based on data and a study conducted by WHOOP, sudden changes in HRV can be a reliable indicator of preterm births. WHOOP analyzed the physiological data of 241 pregnancies and found that in singleton pregnancies, maternal heart rate variability (HRV) trends invert seven weeks prior to delivery. So if you’re currently pregnant or trying to become pregnant, I recommend signing up for WHOOP.
How to Improve HRV: Wrap-Up and Final Thoughts
Heart rate variability is a highly personal metric that depends on several factors including genetics and lifestyle. However, I’m convinced that the closer you get your body to its natural state (based on millions of years of human evolution), the more likely it’ll work optimally. And your heart rate variability will reflect that!
So I encourage you to experiment with the 14 hacks that have improved my HRV to see which ones have the most impact for you.
Of course, you can only improve what you can measure. So get yourself a wearable that can track HRV, such as the WHOOP strap, to see how the changes you implement affect your HRV.
If you do, let me know in the comments what has worked for you (and what hasn’t)!
Michael is a healthy living enthusiast and CrossFit athlete whose goal is to help people achieve optimal health by bridging the gap between ancestral living and the demands of modern society.