Your heart’s like a tree.
Ever see a video of a hurricane blasting a tropical area?
Remember the palm trees doubled over so their tops are brushing the ground?
But what happens to hardwood trees subjected to violent storms?
Their branches and trunks resist the wind – and get broken. In my area of the Midwest, post-storm cleanup always includes clearing large branches and entire overturned trees . . . plus repairing houses, garages, and cars smashed by the trees.
Your body is constantly weathering the storms of life – stress and internal biological activity, including inhaling and exhaling.
Healthy hearts adjust to constantly changing circumstances – just as palm trees bend with the wind.
When they try to resist, that’s a bad sign – just like an oak or maple trying to withstand too much air pressure.
This affects the rate at which your heartbeats.
We assume this should be the steady thump . . . thump . . . thump we’ve all heard recordings of.
But equipment more sophisticated than our ears detects what’s called Heart Rate Variability or HRV.
A high HRV is a sign of greater fitness. If we could hear it, a fit heart beats more like thump . . . thuuuuump . . thuump . . . . thummp.
The differences are only in milliseconds, but they’re critical.
HRV reflects the balance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.
When we are under high stress, our hearts beat faster. That means there is less time for a varying interval between beats, so HRV is lower.
When we’re relaxed, our heart rates go down, allowing more variation of time between the beats.
We’ve known for a long time physically fit people such as athletes have lower rates of heartbeats than do couch potatoes.
However, it’s a relatively recent discovery that heartbeats are not uniform, and HRV matters as well as how fast or slow your heartbeats are.
A High HRV is a Beneficial Biomarker
It indicates you have a high rate of physical fitness, a healthier heart, and lower stress. You’re generally calmer and better able to handle life’s problems.
Scientists have found that comparing the HRV of athletes helps predict which one will defeat the other when they compete against each other.
High HRV also predicts who will have strong willpower and greater self-control.
And Low HRV?
It’s correlated with chronic inflammation, constant stress, depression, cardiovascular problems, and cancer.
What Lowers HRV?
2. Cardiovascular illness and many other chronic diseases
4. Low physical fitness
5. Smoking tobacco
How Can You Raise Your HRV?
People had high HRVs a zillion years before we invented the technology to detect and measure it.
And they did so mainly by walking, running, and just plain working hard.
2. Coherent, Conscious Breathing
Since 1977, Dr. David O’Hare has been studying how breathing affects HRV.
He’s discovered slowing down the rate at which you breathe also slows down your metabolism, bringing your body into coherence.
And that raises your HRV.
And it starts after just 5 minutes of breathing.
The ideal rate of breathing is individual, but is basically around 5.5 seconds for inhalation, followed by 5.5 seconds for exhalation.
Don’t sweat the one-half second – just aim for 5-6 seconds of breathing in, 5-6 seconds of breathing out.
That’s around 6 breaths per minute – far fewer than the 12 to 20 considered “normal.”
According to author James Nestor, that closely matches how much time it takes to speak various holy phrases, mantras, affirmations, and prayers found in religions around the world.
This heart coherence is another benefit of meditating.
You can also simply sit and slow your breaths to this pace while thinking pleasant thoughts.
Or visualizing your goals.
Or sendings waves of gratitude, love, abundance, and compassion to the entire universe.
Many spiritual traditions recommend these techniques.
Whether they accomplish anything “religious,” is not for me to say.
But they do raise your HRV, improving your physical and mental health.
The Benefits of Conscious Breathing to Raise HRV
You don’t have to meditate all day long like a zen monk.
Just sit and breathe at the rate of six breaths per minute for 5 minutes – and do it three times per day.
Studies have shown that just doing that lowers your heart rate, reduces your blood pressure, and lowers your levels of cortisol – by up to 20%.
Doing this coherent breathing on a regular basis also increases these “feel good” neurotransmitters:
How Can You Track Your HRV?
Ideally, you’d have an Electrocardiograph every day – but that’s impractical.
Many apps, fitness trackers, heart rate chest straps, and smartwatches now show your HRV.
Me, I’m skeptical about their accuracy. Measuring your heart thumps is easy. HRV varies by milliseconds.
However, assuming your device is consistent if not as fine-tuned as an ECG machine, track the trend.
As you exercise and breathe consciously at 6 breaths per minute day after day, your measured HRV should gradually go up.