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Heart Rate Variability

Did you know that you can control how fast your heart beats by controlling your breath?

Most of the time your heart rate is controlled on autopilot, with your brain and nervous system sending messages to your heart and telling it when it needs to work harder and when it can relax. The degree to which your heart can speed up and slow down is called your heart rate variability.

Heart rate variability is a measure of how adaptable your body can be. If your heart rate has “good” or “high” variability it means that your body can adapt to change, and it usually means that you are less stressed and even happier.

The opposite, or low heart rate variability can be a sign of health problems. It means your body is less resilient and less nimble in adapting to changing situations. It's more common in people who have higher resting heart rates because when your heart is often or always beating faster there’s less time between the beats, or less opportunity for your body to recognize the opportunity to slow down. Low heart rate variability is common in people who have diabetes, high blood pressure, arrhythmia, and anxiety and depression. Our heart rate variability also tends to decrease normally as we get older.

Heart rate variability is difficult to measure but it’s never a bad idea to for anyone to practice things that can improve it. That means paying attention to both the body and the mind. For example, regular exercise and a healthy diet are important to improve and maintain the condition of your heart; a healthier heart will have better heart rate variability. Caring for your mental health is also vital. Chronic stress, anxiety, and depression are perceived by the autonomic nervous system as a need to fight, flee, or freeze; all resulting in a higher heart rate. Reducing and managing your stress level and seeking treatment for anxiety and depression can improve your heart rate variability.

And here is where your breathing comes in. Your heart naturally beats a little faster when you inhale and slows when you exhale. Breathing exercises can help. This can be as simple as sitting in a quiet place and thinking only about breathing slowly in and out. You can find guided breathing meditations on YouTube or as apps for your phone. Activities like yoga and tai chi where breath is slowed and controlled can also help to improve heart rate variability.

I practice yoga so I can attest to the benefits of “breath work” as it is called. If I find myself feeling stressed or notice that my heart seems to be beating too fast, I know that a long, deep breath and a slow exhale will usually make me feel calmer.

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