How to Improve Your HRV with Breathing Exercises & Breathwork

October 16, 2021

This is an introductory guide to help you improve your Heart Rate Variability (HRV) with breathing exercises and breathwork. Breathwork can improve the stress response of your body and mind, reduce anxiety, boost your mood, improve sleep quality, and enhance athletic performance.

In this post we will tell you exactly what HRV is, how breathwork affects it, and provide specific breathing exercises that will increase your HRV score. Improved HRV can help improve all aspects of your life, including confidence, focus, athletic performance, and sleep.

If you're interested to learn how to increase your HRV score with breathing exercises and breathwork, read on.

What does HRV stand for?

HRV stands for Heart Rate Variability. HRV refers to the variations in time between each heart beat.

How does HRV work?

When you inhale, your heart rate (the number of times your heart beats per minute) naturally rises. When you exhale, it slows down again. However, the exact amount the heart rate accelerates on inhalation and decelerates on exhalation varies. This range from your maximum heart rate to your minimum heart rate is known as heart rate variability (HRV).

Our heart rate adjusts constantly, as the body adjusts to new situations or stressors. HRV directly reflects the parasympathetic system's activity, a higher HRV means greater parasympathetic tone, or "rest and digest" signal to the body. A higher resting HRV is linked to lower stress levels and a healthier body.

Why is HRV important?

Dr. Leah Lagos, in her book Heart Breath Mind, describes high heart rate variability as being what you need to thrive under pressure. It indicates the body’s ability to quickly ramp up and feel a boost of energy, and then quickly relax and recover. High HRV feels like a state of being totally in the zone  - a state of flow. Along with its association to cardiac health, HRV is linked to performance, including the ability to self-regulate, inhibit negative thoughts, make objective decisions.

HRV is a measure of the balance between the two main branches of your autonomic nervous system: the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. In order to adapt to today’s modern stressors, many of us have a dominant sympathetic nervous system, leading to a low HRV score.

Tracking your HRV can relay very powerful information about the state of our physical and mental health. Data from the team at Oura tells us another interesting piece about HRV data, “HRV isn’t as simple as, “how high can you go?”  — having more consistent HRV values from day to day can also signal an enhanced ability to respond to daily stressors.”

Best devices for measuring HRV

Monitoring your heart’s activity through an HRV score is a great way to understand how mental and physical stress is being felt in your body. There are many great devices available for calculating your HRV. Here are some of our favourites:

Oura Ring

The Oura Ring is the most accurate sleep tracking device on the market, and will give you a daily HRV score based on the previous nights sleep score. It measures sleep, readiness, as well as daily activity, and is very comfortable to wear. Many members of the Inward Breathwork team have been using this device for several years and love it!

Apple Watch

The Apple Watch is best known as a fitness tracker, but can provide great sleep and HRV data as well. When using the Apple Watch, you are able to sync your HRV data to the Health App on your iPhone. It is another great wearable that will give you highly accurate HRV data.

Heart Rate Monitor

HRV can be measured with a heart-rate monitor in the form of a chest strap. This is the least expensive solution, however may not be comfortable for long term use. The PolarH10 is a highly reviewed product and provides very accurate moment-to-moment heart rate data.

What is stress and how does it affect our breathing?

People often assume stress occurs exclusively in our mind. But stress has powerful manifestations in our physical body. One most immediately noticeable symptom to someone experiencing stress is a sudden change in breathing pattern to breaths that are more shallow, short, and in the upper chest.

Harnessing the power of the breath can be one of the most effective ways to restore relaxation, nudge our nervous system into a parasympathetic state, and increase our HRV values.

The stress & HRV connection

Stress activates our sympathetic (fight-or-flight) system, which speeds up heart rate and decreases the variability between beats (your HRV). Stress encourages our heart to beat more like a metronome, at a regular, consistent beat.

In contrast, activation of the parasympathetic nervous system drops your overall heart rate and increases your HRV. When your heart doesn’t need to beat fast in order to pump blood to your muscles, it can be more flexible and vary the time between beats.

In summary, stress decreases HRV (not the goal), relaxation increases it (the goal).

Deep breathing exercises strengthen the parasympathetic system (your “rest and digest” network), resulting in reduced stress and improved HRV. You may be doing all the health practices, but if your nervous system isn’t able to recovery in the parasympathetic (rest & digest) state, it will be reflected in your HRV score. A key component of this involves relearning how to breathe the way nature intended—from your belly, not your chest.

Physiologists Evgeny Vaschillo, PhD and Bronya Vaschillo, MD, discovered that the primary connection between HRV and breathing occurs at a mechanism called the baroreflex, one of the body’s systems for maintaining blood pressure. Most of us breathe at a faster frequency than our baroreflex, but when we purposefully slow our breathing we can matchits frequency and increase our HRV.

How does breathwork boost HRV?

Breathing exercises can reduce stress and improve your HRV. Improving your breathing is the most fundamental, yet most overlooked tool for reducing stress and raising HRV, among other things to do with health and wellbeing.

When we control our breathing, we control our entire bodies and minds. Breathing properly is a powerful way to increase HRV and vitality. Our wilful control of the amount of oxygen we take in, and carbon dioxide we expel, means that we can consciously adjust the chemical makeup of our own nervous system. In doing so, we can use the breath to send a signal that we aren’t actually in danger.

Breathing affects us all the time, whether we're exercising, sitting or sleeping, without even realizing it’s powerful effect on our body and mind. Consciously controlling our breath can help us take immediate control of our emotional state, and let our bodies know that it’s safe to relax. The lower lungs are actually packed with parasympathetic nerve receptors that, when stimulated through deep diaphragmatic (belly) breathing, release endorphins to spread a sense of calm throughout the body and mind.

Here is a wonderful example from Oura of HRV expert Marco Altini’s data showing an increase in weekly and monthly HRV scores while implementing a deep breathing practice.

Image Source: Oura Ring

5 HRV Breathing Techniques

Try the breathing exercises below to determine which type of breathing works best for you, enjoy a greater sense of calm and focus, and increase your heart rate variability (HRV). Breathing exercises are a lot easier than you might think, 5-20 minutes is the perfect amount to offer a powerful effect on your nervous system, and increase your HRV during sleep.

HRV Resonant breathing exercise (Coherent Breathing)

Dr. Leah Lagos revealed that there is a particular rate of breathing, called coherent or resonant breathing, that maximizes alignment between your heart and breath. Coherent breathing is a breathing pattern of roughly 6 breaths per minute. When you breathe at this rate, it strengthens the baroreflex, which increases your HRV.

Dr. Lagos, says “Think of resonance breathing as a high-performance alternative to yoga and meditation… you may feel your heart open in a way that feels pure, rich, and relationship-enriching.”

Diaphragmatic Buteyko Breathing

The Buteyko method of breathwork is named after Ukrainian Doctor Konstantin Buteyko, who based his work on the idea that most people were suffering from over-breathing. Contrary to the popular notion that more oxygen = better health, Buteyko advocates gently reducing oxygen intake to improve the body’s ability to absorb oxygen, prevent hyperventilation and trigger the “rest and digest” state of the autonomic nervous system.

There are several exercises within the Buteyko method, and all begin from the principle that we should all be nose-breathing, whether awake or asleep. To practice the Buteyko method:

  • Begin breathing through the nose. Start to slow down the breath, and keep the breath gentle and quiet, rather than taking deep inhalations to the top of your lung capacity.
  • Continue slowing down the breath, until you begin to feel a slight air shortage. Resist the urge to take deeper breaths, but maintain these light breaths.
  • Continue breathing like this for one minute, focusing attention on the breath.

Alternate Nostril Breathing

Alternate Nostril Breathing is the practice of gently closing one nostril with your thumb or finger, while slowly inhaling and exhaling through the other. It is widely researched as a natural anxiety treatment, unblocks the sinuses, and takes the benefits of nasal breathing up another level. The basic technique is:

  • Sitting comfortably, exhale all the way through the nostrils. Then, use the right thumb to block the right nostril and inhale through the left.
  • At the top of the inhale, release the right nostril and block the left nostril with the left forefinger. Exhale through the right nostril.
  • Inhale through the right nostril, then switch back to blocking the right nostril, exhaling through the left. Repeat this pattern for as long as is useful.

Box Breathing

Box Breathing, also known as square breathing, is one of the most popular forms of breathwork. Navy SEALs, police officers and nurses commonly practice box breathing for anxiety as part of their training. It’s a very simple practice that can be done anywhere, at any time. Follow these steps to try box breathing for yourself:

  • Seated in a comfortable position with your feet flat on the floor, slowly exhale all the way to the end of your breath.
  • Inhale slowly for a count of four, all the way in until you’ve reached your full lung capacity.
  • Hold the breath at the top of your inhale for an equal count of four.
  • On another count of four, exhale all the way until your lungs are completely empty.
  • Hold your breath on the exhale for another count of four.
  • Repeat for as long as is helpful, until you feel better.

4-7-8 Breathing

4-7-8 breathing was popularized by Dr. Andrew Weil as a method for immediate stress reduction. This breathing exercise involves breathing in for 4 seconds, holding the breath for 7 seconds, and exhaling for 8 seconds. To practice this HRV breathing technique, follow the steps above, just altering the counts and omitting the hold on the empty.

Dr. Weil typically recommends starting with 4 rounds of this practice, progressing to 8 consecutive rounds. The technique is best known for reducing anxiety & stress, helping you to fall asleep, reducing cravings, and reducing emotions such as anger.

4 Best Videos on Breathing Exercises for HRV

Ready to try for yourself? Each of these videos provides a guided breathwork experience based on the evidence-based breathing techniques described above to maximize your HRV.

Coherent Breathing

Try Inward Breathwork’s 9-minute Coherent Breathing session with calming binaural beats led by Harrison Taylor.

Diaphragmatic Buteyko Breathing - Slo-Mo Breath

Using the principles of Buteyko Breath, let Harrison Taylor guide you into a deep and controlled state of relaxation through slow and controlled belly & nose breathing.

4-7-8 Breathing - SOS Breath

Using this calm 4-7-8 breath pattern, our Inward Breathwork instructor, Harrison Taylor, will guide you back to a controlled slow rhythmic state, calming down your heart rate, lowering blood pressure and creating a deep feeling of calm.

Alternate Nostril Breathing for Anxiety

Try this alternate nostril breathing practice with our Inward Breathwork instructor, Nicole Murphy.

The Science of Breathwork & HRV: 3 Research Studies

Take a deep dive into some of the research on breathwork and HRV with these research articles.

1. Integrating Breathing Techniques into Psychotherapy to Improve HRV: Which Approach is Best?

Published in February 2021, this article outlines the effectiveness of coherent breathing in increasing HRV, while giving recommendations for making this technique more accessible to practice.

2. How Breath Control Can Change Your Life: A Systematic Review on Psycho-Physiological Correlates of Slow Breathing

Slow breathing techniques act enhancing autonomic, cerebral and psychological flexibility in a scenario of mutual interactions: these authors found evidence of links between parasympathetic activity (increased HRV and LF power), CNS activities (increased EEG alpha power and decreased EEG theta power) related to emotional control and psychological well-being.

3. The relationship between mental and physical health: insights from the study of heart rate variability

In this article, authors review their work on the impact of mood and comorbid anxiety disorders, alcohol dependence, and their treatments on heart rate variability (HRV), a known psychophysiological marker of mental and physical wellbeing.

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