Knowing your Heart Rate Variability (for short, your HRV) is one of the best indicators of your overall body health, including the impacts of stress, your body’s resiliency, and how quickly your body recovers!
One of the easiest ways to improve your HRV is by practicing yoga asanas and adding breathing and relaxation exercises into your everyday. Many studies demonstrate the health benefits and positive impacts on HRV of using these techniques regularly.
Several studies have demonstrated that doing yoga has a favorable effect on HRV along with improvements in cardiovascular disease risk factors such as heart rate, cholesterol blood pressure, cholesterol, waist circumference, and insulin resistance.
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- Apple Watch guide to understand and use HRV (Heart Rate Variability)
- How to check your heart rate variability (HRV) on Fitbit
- 3 best wearables to analyze, train and improve your HRV
Wearing a smartwatch or another wearable like an arm or chest strap is an easy way to collect your daily HRV data and track any changes over time.
Companion apps, like Apple Health, Garmin Connect, or the Fitbit app, provide easy-to-understand dashboards with your HRV and offer insights into how your exercise and lifestyle choices impact your HRV, health, and performance.
In this article, I look at how you can improve your HRV over time by practicing yoga, and I include research and studies to back it all up.
- 1 Practicing yoga can positively impact your HRV and your cardiovascular health
- 2 What is Heart Rate Variability (HRV)?
- 3 HRV, exercise, and recovery
- 4 Tips to improve your HRV
- 5 Use your Fitbit, Apple Watch, or almost any wearable to keep an eye on your HRV
- 6 How to track a yoga workout on Fitbit
- 7 How to use the Relax app to track and manage stress with my Fitbit device
- 8 How to use the Mindfulness app on Apple Watch
- 9 A final word about wearables and HRV
Practicing yoga can positively impact your HRV and your cardiovascular health
Whether you are a beginner or an experienced yogi, practicing breath awareness and two types of pranayama have been shown to have a positive effect on HRV (5).
Practicing Yoga Nidra relaxation has been shown to produce favorable changes in HRV when done alone and after a session of Hatha yoga (3).
Twelve weeks of yoga has been shown to positively affect blood pressure, heart rate, and HRV in patients with heart failure (6).
Cardiovascular disease, especially coronary heart disease, is the leading cause of death in post-menopausal women. 12 weeks of yoga potentially reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease in postmenopausal women (7).
Following an analysis of 44 clinical trials with a total of 3168 participants, yoga was effective in preventing cardiovascular disease in healthy people, non-diabetic people with high risk for cardiovascular disease, people with type 2 diabetes mellitus, and people with increased risk of cardiovascular disease (8).
The analysis results found positive changes in many measures such as blood pressure, heart rate, respiratory rate, cholesterol, waist circumference, and insulin resistance. The researchers concluded that 12 weeks of yoga was the optimum duration to elicit positive changes.
Try these yoga asanas to increase your HRV and improve overall cardiovascular health
To gain a benefit, research suggests that you need to complete at least 2-3 yoga routines per week for a minimum of 12 weeks and consist of the following components.
As a physical therapist, these are the yoga asanas I use with my clients to help them gain flexibility, reduce stress, and over time increase their HRV.
If you want to learn step-by-step how to enter and exit a pose, check out this resource offered by Yoga Journal.
#1 Yoga Asanas
- Sukhasana (Easy pose) with Breath Awareness. This pose lengthens your spine and opens your hips. It helps you to calm down and eliminate anxiety. It also reduces mental and physical exhaustion. Stay in this position for 30 seconds, then change the leg that’s in front. It’s also a great idea to use the Breathe app on your Apple Watch while you sit in Sukhasana.
- Paschimottanasana (Seated forward bend) stretches your spine, hamstring, and lower back while relieving stress and reducing fatigue. Stay in this position for 60 seconds.
- Ardha Matsyendrasana (Half Lord of the Fishes Pose) is a restorative yoga pose that promotes good digestion and encourages spinal mobility. Stay in this position for 30 seconds, then change the leg that’s in front. This pose is simultaneously relaxing and invigorating.
- Salamba Bhujangasana (Sphinx pose) is a gentle backbend suitable for most beginners. It lengthens the abdominal muscles and strengthens the spine. It invigorates the body, soothes the nervous system, and is therapeutic for fatigue. Stay in this pose for 60 seconds.
- Chakravakasana (Cat-Cow Pose) will improve your posture and balance, and along with synchronized breath movement, it will help you relax. Stay in this pose for 60 seconds.
- Balasana (Child’s pose) is beneficial for your lymphatic system and nervous system. It will calm your mind and release stress. Stay in this pose for 60 seconds.
- Ardha Kapotasana (Half Pigeon pose) This pose will strengthen the spine and helps to release emotional trauma, tension, and anxiety. Stay in this position for 30 seconds, then change the leg that’s in front.
- Savasana (Corpse pose) is usually used to end your practice and allow your body, mind, and spirit to relax and release tension fully. Stay in this pose for at least 60 seconds.
#2 Pranayama (Yoga breathing techniques) 10 mins
Kapalabhati is a traditional internal cleansing technique used as a simple warm-up for formal Pranayama. Do 25 to 30 cycles at first. Gradually increase the number of cycles you do at each practice to 100 or more.
Anulom Vilom or Alternate Nostril Breathing; this technique has many physical and psychological benefits, including stress reduction. Do one or two minutes and slowly increase the length of time.
#3 Yoga Nidra 10 mins
Yoga Nidra is an ancient practice that translates as ‘yogic sleep.’
Yoga Nidra is a practice that everyone can do. There are many free audio-guided practices and apps available.
All you need to do is lie down on the floor, relax and make yourself comfortable for around 10 minutes.
What is Heart Rate Variability (HRV)?
Heart rate is measured in beats per minute, but the time between each heartbeat is actually slightly variable. This difference is called Heart Rate Variability (HRV).
The time between each heartbeat is measured in milliseconds (ms) and is called an “R-R interval” or “inter-beat interval (IBI).”
When should you measure HRV?
HRV is best measured during a rested state (usually first thing in the morning or during resting activities such as meditation).
Why use HRV instead of the heart rate?
Heart rate variability (HRV) is often more helpful than heart rate alone.
Since HRV focuses on the small changes between each heartbeat (in milliseconds), it is much more complex and requires a higher degree of accuracy to measure than heart rate alone.
Your HRV is a good training aid to see if your workouts improve your cardio health.
Additionally, your HRV shows how healthy (or unhealthy) you are and, in particular, is an excellent gauge of how your body handles stress.
HRV is also a significant predictor of unfavorable outcomes in various diseases (1).
And changes in HRV have also been shown to be an essential factor in managing several health conditions such as cardiovascular disease, hypertension, myocardial infarction, sudden cardiac death, renal dysfunction, diabetes, and cancer (2).
Notably, the measurement of HRV can be used to indicate the balance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic activity of the autonomic nervous system (3).
The autonomic nervous system plays a significant role in optimizing the function of the cardiovascular system, which in turn has important implications for cardiovascular health.
How does HRV reflect general health and cardiovascular health?
HRV is a measurable reflection of the balance between sympathetic and parasympathetic activity and can be used to indicate cardiac health. HRV is an umbrella term for many different calculations and analysis methods. When applying these calculations correctly, the autonomic nervous system can be measured.
The autonomic nervous system receives information about the body and its external environment and then responds by stimulating bodily processes through the sympathetic or parasympathetic division.
HRV reflects the combined activity of sympathetic and parasympathetic activity on heart rate.
The two divisions work together to maintain balance as the body responds to different situations. Health can be adversely affected when one of these systems is unchecked by the other.
The autonomic nervous system regulates all automatic activities such as heart rate, blood pressure, respiration, blood sugar, body temperature, sweat, and digestion.
As you can see from the table below, the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems balance defending the body from attack and healing and regenerating the body. Some factors that activate these symptoms are stress, over-exercising, rest, sleep, and mediation.
|Function||To defend the body against attack||Healing, regeneration, and nourishing the body|
|Overall Effect||Catabolic (breaks down the body)||Anabolic (builds up the body)|
|Organs and Glands It Activates||The brain, muscles, the pancreas, and the thyroid and adrenal glands||The liver, kidneys, pancreas, spleen, stomach, small intestines, and colon|
|Body Functions It Activates||Raises blood pressure and blood sugar and increases heat production||Activates digestion, elimination, and the immune system|
|Psychological Qualities||Fear, guilt, sadness, anger, and aggressiveness.||Calmness, contentment, and relaxation|
|Factors That Activate This System||Stress, fears, anger, worry, excessive thinking, and too much exercise||Rest, sleep, meditation, relaxation therapies, and feelings of being loved|
HRV, exercise, and recovery
If you are an athlete or exercise enthusiast, it’s good to use heart rate variability (HRV) to monitor your daily recovery.
Several studies have shown that a rising HRV (greater variability between heartbeats) strongly predicts successful exercise training adaptation. The body has a strong ability to tolerate stress.
A low HRV (less variability between heartbeats) often occurs after a strenuous workout and rises again with proper rest and recovery.
Thus you can use a high HRV as an indication that you are ready for another strenuous workout or a consistently low HRV to indicate that you are overtraining (4).
If the daily amounts of stress and recovery are not balanced, your health and fitness are negatively affected.
Stress doesn’t just come from overtraining. Stress can be triggered by your workplace, relationships, lack of sleep, or poor nutrition.
A low HRV indicates that the body is under stress from exercise, psychological events, or other internal or external stressors.
Tips to improve your HRV
HRV is very individual, so don’t compare your HRV to other people’s. Just compare your HRV to your resting values.
Regular exercise a few times per week can improve HRV for all age groups (9). If you have a more sedentary lifestyle, exercise can be one of the most effective ways to make positive improvements in HRV.
Several studies have shown that sleep deprivation, or not sleeping well, is associated with reduced HRV(10). Try to sleep for at least 8 hours per night.
Everyone is different in optimal nutrition, but as a general rule, avoid processed foods and large meals late at night, which has been shown to reduce HRV (11).
Deep breathing techniques, such as yoga pranayama, mindfulness, and breathing during meditation, can positively affect the parasympathetic system resulting in positive changes in HRV.
Mainly when your breathing rate is around 6 breaths per minute (12).
Manage your stress
Stress can come from many sources, both physiological and psychological. Poor work conditions have negatively affected the autonomic nervous system and HRV (13).
When your HRV is lower than usual, prioritize recovery by reducing exercise intensity, and try managing your stress with one of the following activities:
Breathing techniques, meditation, yoga, massage therapy, spending time in nature, and even doing a hobby or activity that you enjoy!
Use your Fitbit, Apple Watch, or almost any wearable to keep an eye on your HRV
Most smartwatches and trackers now offer ways to stay informed about your Heart Rate Variability and include your history and trends.
I’m going to look at Fitbit and Apple Watch since they are the most popular devices on the market. But if you own a Garmin, wearOS smartwatch, Samsung, or other wearables like the Whoop or Amazon Halo, take a look at your user manual.
These manufacturers offer a way to track your heart metrics, and most offer methods to see your current HRV and your trends.
How to track HRV with Fitbit
The heart rate tracking feature on your Fitbit watch or tracker automatically measures HRV and sends your stats to the Fitbit app.
To see heart-rate variability in the Fitbit app, you need to wear your device for at least a full day, including when sleeping at night.
Then in the morning:
- Open the Fitbit app and tap the Today tab.
- Choose Health Metrics.
- See a graph of your nightly average heart rate variability in milliseconds.
- Tap Learn More above the graph to get further insights.
How to track HRV with Apple Watch
- Launch Health App on your iPhone.
- Tap on the Browse tab at the bottom of your screen.
- Tap on Heart and review your Heart Rate Variability.
- Tap on your Heart Rate Variability to see a detailed report, including your HRV for the current day, week, month, and year.
See this in-depth article for more information on HRV and the apple watch.
How to track a yoga workout on Fitbit
Yoga is not one of the exercises that Fitbit auto-recognizes, so you need to open the Exercise app and choose Yoga before you start your workout.
Depending on your model, you may first need to add Yoga as one of your Exercise Shortcuts via the Fitbit app. Once added, use the Exercise app and tap Yoga. It’s that easy!
For Fitbit Ionic, Fitbit Sense, and Fitbit Versa series, all exercises are available in the Exercise app–you don’t need to add Yoga to your shortcuts.
To add Yoga as an exercise shortcut to your Fitbit, follow these steps
- Open the Fitbit app and select the Today tab.
- Tap your account icon at the top and choose your Fitbit device from the list.
- Scroll down and choose Exercise Shortcuts.
- Tap + Exercise Shortcut to add Yoga.
- If you need to delete a shortcut before adding Yoga, swipe left on a shortcut and tap Delete.
- You can also reorder the exercises, so Yoga appears first by tapping Edit. Then, press and hold on Yoga and drag it to your preferred position.
- Once added, sync to save changes on your Fitbit.
How to track a yoga workout on Apple Watch
Just before starting your practice:
- Open your Apple Watch’s Workout app.
- Scroll down and select Yoga.
- If you don’t see it, continue scrolling and tap Add Workout.
- Apple lists all workouts from A to Z. Scroll to the bottom of the Y section and tap Yoga.
- By default, Yoga is an open goal activity. If you want to set up your practice by time or calories, tap the three-dot More button and set your preferences.
How to use the Relax app to track and manage stress with my Fitbit device
You can track and manage stress in 4 different ways with the Fitbit app and your Fitbit device.
- The Relax app is offered on most Fitbit devices and guides you through short deep breathing sessions to help you reach a state of calm.
- Your stress management score in the Fitbit app can help you see how your body responds to stress based on your heart rate, sleep, and activity level data. Currently, this feature is only available on these Fitbit models: Fitbit Charge 4+, Fitbit Inspire 2, Fitbit Luxe, Fitbit Sense, and Fitbit Versa 2+.
- EDA Scan App is offered on the Fitbit Sense and Charge 5 and detects changes in your body’s Electrodermal activity (EDA) responses, key indicators of stress.
- For Fitbit Premium members, the Mindfulness sessions in the Premium tab of the Fitbit app include meditations and sessions that with sleep and stress and offer ways to help you track and understand the effects of your mindfulness practice.
How to use the Mindfulness app on Apple Watch
Apple includes an app called Mindfulness (formerly Breathe) that introduces Apple Watch users to guided breathwork and meditation.
An animating flower gently grows and shrinks for several seconds. The app instructs you to take a deep breath and hold it while the flower increases, then exhale when the flower shrinks. It’s pretty awesome!
A final word about wearables and HRV
Most wrist-worn wearables use photoplethysmography (PPG) to estimate HR and cardiac rhythm. PPG is a technique that detects blood volume changes in the small vessels underneath the skin’s surface. Some devices also have an added ECG sensor.
Studies have shown that chest straps with ECG electrodes that record ECG signals are more accurate for assessing HRV than wearables worn on the wrist (4). The multi-lead ambulatory ECG devices used at rest are the gold standard for determining HRV, but these are not practical for everyday use at home!
So, if you want the most accurate way to measure HRV, use a chest strap system in addition to your Apple Watch, Fitbit, or another wearable.
(1) Sacha et al (2014): Interaction between Heart Rate and Heart Rate Variability. A.N.E. May Vol. 19, No. 3.
(2) Grippo et al (2017) Opinion: “Heart Rate Variability, Health, and Well-Being: A Systems Perspective” Research Topic. Frontiers in public health, 5, 246.
(3) Markil et al (2012) Yoga Nidra relaxation increases heart rate variability and is unaffected by a prior bout of Hatha yoga; A Randomized Controlled Trial, J Altern Complement Med 18(10):953-8. doi: 10.1089/acm.2011.0331.
(4) Singh, N., Moneghetti, K. J., Christle, J. W., Hadley, D., Plews, D., & Froelicher, V. (2018). Heart Rate Variability: An Old Metric with New Meaning in the Era of using mHealth Technologies for Health and Exercise Training Guidance. Part One: Physiology and Methods. Arrhythmia & electrophysiology review, 7(3), 193–198.
(5) Toshikazu Shinba et al (2020) Changes in Heart Rate Variability after Yoga are Dependent on Heart Rate Variability at Baseline and during Yoga: A Study Showing Autonomic Normalization Effect in Yoga-Naïve and Experienced Subjects. Int J Yoga May-Aug 2020;13(2):160-167. doi: 10.4103/ijoy.IJOY_39_19.
(6) Krishna et al (2014) Effect of yoga therapy on heart rate, blood pressure, and cardiac autonomic function in heart failure. J Clin Diagn Res. 2014 Jan;8(1):14-6. doi: 10.7860/JCDR/2014/7844.3983. PMID: 24596712; PMCID: PMC3939525.
(7) Praveena, S. M., Asha, G., Sunita, M., Anju, J., & Ratna, B. (2018). Yoga Offers Cardiovascular Protection in Early Postmenopausal Women. International journal of yoga, 11(1), 37–43.
(8) H. Cramer et al (2014) Effects of yoga on cardiovascular disease risk factors: A systematic review and meta-analysis. International Journal of Cardiology 173 (2014) 170–183.
(9) Sandercock, G. R., Bromley, P. D., & Brodie, D. A. (2005). Effects of exercise on heart rate variability: inferences from meta-analysis. Medicine and science in sports and exercise, 37(3), 433-439.
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