Breathwork can improve the stress responses of your body and mind, reduce your anxiety, boost your mood, improve your sleep quality, and enhance your athletic performance. What many might not realize is it’s also great for your cardiovascular health, and can help improve your heart rate variability (HRV) with regular practice.
This introductory guide will help you improve your HRV with breathing exercises and breathwork, as covered in the following sections:
Before we look into some breathing exercises for heart rate, let’s explore what exactly heart rate variability is.
Interested in using your breathing to improve your overall health? Check out breathwork exercises to practice daily for improved wellness.
Before trying to improve your HRV with breathing, you should build your understanding of what exactly HRV is. This section is your guide to the basics of HRV.
HRV (heart rate variability) refers to the variations in time between each of your heartbeats. 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 your heart rate variability.
Your heart rate adjusts constantly as your body encounters new situations or stressors. HRV directly reflects your parasympathetic system's activity; a higher HRV means a stronger parasympathetic tone (i.e. a "rest and digest" signal) to your body. So a higher resting HRV is linked to lower stress levels and a healthier body.
High heart rate variability is what you need to thrive under pressure. It reflects your body’s ability to quickly ramp up and feel a boost of energy, and then quickly relax and recover. High HRV feels like being totally in a state of flow (sometimes known as “in the zone”). Along with its association to cardiac health, HRV is linked to performance, including the ability to self-regulate, inhibit negative thoughts, and 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 your physical and mental health. Data from the team at Oura tells us another interesting thing about HRV data: “HRV isn’t as simple as ‘how high can you go?’ [Instead,] having more consistent HRV values from day to day can also signal an enhanced ability to respond to daily stressors.”
A normal HRV range for adults can be anywhere from below 20 to over 200 milliseconds. Your HRV rate is determined by several factors you can’t control, such as age, gender, and hormone cycles. However, it’s also affected by some factors you can control, like your sleep, nutrition, and physical activity.
People often assume stress occurs exclusively in the mind, but stress has powerful manifestations in the physical body as well. One of the most immediately-noticeable symptoms of someone experiencing stress is a sudden change in their breathing pattern. They begin taking breaths that are shallow, short, and powered by the upper chest (as opposed to the abdomen).
Harnessing the power of your breath can be one of the most effective ways to relax, nudge your nervous system into a parasympathetic state, and increase your HRV values.
Stress activates your sympathetic (fight-or-flight) nervous system, which speeds up your heart rate and decreases the variability between your heartbeats (i.e. your HRV). Stress encourages your 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 your HRV (which is not your goal), while relaxation increases it (which is your goal).
Deep breathing exercises strengthen the parasympathetic nervous system (your “rest and digest” network), resulting in reduced stress and improved HRV. Even if you’re doing all sorts of other health practices, if your nervous system isn’t able to recover in the parasympathetic state, that will impact your HRV score. So a key component of increasing your HRV score is relearning how to breathe the way nature intended: from your belly, not from your chest.
Physiologists Evgeny Vaschillo, Ph.D. and Bronya Vaschillo, M.D. discovered that the primary connection between HRV and breathing occurs at a mechanism called the baroreflex. This is one of the body’s systems for maintaining consistent blood pressure. Most people breathe at a faster frequency than their baroreflex, but when they purposefully slow their breathing, they can match their baroreflex frequency and increase their HRV.
Breathing exercises can reduce stress and improve your HRV. Improving your breathing is the most fundamental, yet most overlooked tool for reducing your stress and raising your HRV, among other health and wellbeing benefits.
When you control your breathing, you control your entire body and mind. Breathing properly is a powerful way to increase HRV and vitality. Your wilful control of the amount of oxygen you take in – and carbon dioxide you expel – allows you to consciously adjust the chemical makeup of your own nervous system. In doing so, you can use your breath to signal to your body that you aren’t actually in danger.
Breathing affects people all the time, whether they're exercising, sitting, or sleeping. Many don’t even realize its powerful effect on the body and mind. Consciously controlling your breath can help you take immediate control of your emotional state, and let your body 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 Credit: Oura
There are several different HRV breathing techniques you can use to help improve your heart variability rate. Here are a few HRV breathing exercises that will improve your well-being.
There are a variety of different breathing exercises to slow heart rate. These include breathwork techniques like coherent breathing and alternate nostril breathing, which are described in more detail in the next section. By practicing breathwork daily, you can calm your body and keep your heart rate at a healthy level.
Just as athletes train the muscles throughout their body, you can also train your inspiratory muscles to improve your breathing – and lower your heart rate in the process. This can be done through the use of breathing exercises to strengthen the lungs and by using devices to improve lung capacity.
Practicing mindfulness regularly is another great way to calm yourself down and live in the moment. Whether it’s meditation or another technique for achieving a meditative state, there are plenty of mindful exercises that can help relax your body and slow your heart rate. This is also a great way to help improve your mood in the process.
Many people build a habit of breathing through their mouths, which prevents them from breathing properly and can lead to harmful effects on their health. By making a conscious habit of breathing through your nose, especially during exercise, you help yourself to make full use of your respiratory system and ensure that your body remains in a relaxed state.
Try the breathing exercises below to determine which type of breathing works best for you. Enjoy a greater sense of calmness 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.
In her book Heart Breath Mind, Dr. Leah Legos reveals that there is a particular rate of breathing that maximizes alignment between your heart and breath. It’s called coherent or resonant breathing, and it’s a breathing pattern of roughly 6 breaths per minute. When you breathe at this rate, it strengthens the baroreflex, which increases your HRV.
Benefits: Lowers blood pressure, relieves anxiety, slows heart rate, promotes relaxation, and improves mood.
How to do it:
Try it now: Watch our 9-minute guided breathwork video on coherent 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. This prevents hyperventilation and triggers the “rest and digest” state of the parasympathetic nervous system.
Benefits: Relieves stress and anxiety, lowers heart rate, lowers blood pressure, improves breathing, and improves sleep.
How to do it: There are several exercises within the Buteyko method, but all of them begin from the principle that you should breathe through your nose whether you’re awake or asleep. To practice the Buteyko method:
Try it now: Watch our 10-minute guided breathwork video for controlled relaxation.
Alternate nostril breathing is the practice of gently closing one nostril with your thumb or finger, while slowly inhaling and exhaling through the other. A lot of scientific research claims that this can naturally treat anxiety, unblock the sinuses, and take the benefits of nasal breathing up another level.
Benefits: Reduces stress and anxiety, promotes relaxation, lowers blood pressure, lowers heart rate, and calms the mind.
How to do it:
Try it now: Watch our 7-minute guided breathwork video on alternate nostril 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 as part of their training to control their anxiety. It’s a very simple practice that can be done anywhere, anytime.
Benefits: Relieves stress and anxiety, improves mood, increases energy, improves focus, and relieves symptoms of depression.
How to do it:
Try it now: Watch this 3-minute guided explanation on box breathing.
4-7-8 breathing was popularized by Dr. Andrew Weil as a method of immediate stress reduction. This breathing exercise involves breathing in for 4 seconds, holding the breath for 7 seconds, and exhaling for 8 seconds. This HRV breathing technique is similar to box breathing; it just alters the counts and omits the hold on the empty.
Benefits: Reduced anxiety and stress, improved sleep, reduced cravings, and decrease in negative emotions.
How to do it:
Try it now: Watch our 9-minute guided breathwork video for mid-day stress relief.
Science has proven that breathing at a rate of 5.5 bpm can increase HRV, and has backed the use of breathing techniques to improve HRV in those with reduced rates. A study from 2018 even backed the use of slow breathing for cardiac vagal activation, which helps to promote relaxation throughout the body. Research continues to demonstrate the link between breathing and heart rate variability, and how this practice has the ability to improve overall health.
Check out these scientific studies to learn more about improving HRV through breathing exercises and breathwork:
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 favorites:
The Oura Ring is the most accurate sleep tracking device on the market. It will give you a daily HRV score based on the previous night's sleep score. It measures sleep, readiness, and daily activity, all while being very comfortable to wear. Many members of the Othership team have been using this device for several years – and they love it!
The Apple Watch is best known as a fitness tracker, but it can also provide great sleep and HRV data as well. When using it, you are able to sync your HRV data to the Health App on your iPhone. This makes the Apple Watch another great wearable that will give you highly-accurate HRV data.
HRV can be measured with a heart rate monitor in the form of a chest strap. This is the least expensive solution, but it may not be comfortable for long-term use. The Polar H10 is a product that gets great reviews and provides very accurate moment-to-moment heart rate data.
If you’re ready to try breathwork and increase your HRV, explore our class styles offered on the Othership app.
Othership is growing daily. Register below to be kept informed.