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7 Practices That Make a Big Difference to Heart Health

7 Practices That Make a Big Difference to Heart Health


The heart is arguably the hardest working organ in your body. Even during rest, it beats anywhere between 60 to 100 times per minute, pumping blood throughout the body, delivering life-enabling oxygen to every cell while removing waste products and carbon dioxide. Of course, you’re probably already aware of the importance of heart health. But actually tracking how you’re faring on that front can be a time-consuming hassle involving a doctor’s visit, fancy EKG machines, and multiple blood tests.

What if you could stay up to speed on your heart health from the comfort of your home with your smartphone or fitness tracker? You actually can—by measuring your heart rate variability (HRV).

What is heart rate variability (HRV)?

Quite intuitively, heart rate variability (HRV) measures the change in timing between successive heartbeats. Wait…“change in timing”? Yep. Contrary to popular belief, a healthy heart doesn’t behave like a metronome. It doesn’t keep a steady rhythm between beats. In fact, as shocking as it may be to learn, more variability is usually considered a sign of good cardiovascular health as it’s an indicator of your heart’s ability to adapt and adjust to changing demands. To that end, several decades’ worth of research has consistently linked low HRV with:


  •   Increased all-cause mortality
  •   A slew of noncardiac diseases, including type 2 diabetes and fibromyalgia
  •   Neurologic and psychiatric conditions such as epilepsy, anxiety, and depression
  •   Increased risk of dysrhythmias and sudden cardiac death

That said, a crucial disclaimer: a higher HRV isn’t always necessarily better. Too much variability between how much your heart rate fluctuates from one beat to the next could be a sign of arrhythmia—or, simply put, a problem with the rate or rhythm of your heartbeat. So, it’s important to have your primary healthcare provider check your baseline HRV and get their professional opinion on whether you should increase your HRV.

How to improve your heart rate variability (HRV)

Improving your HRV has a lot to do with living a healthy lifestyle. Here are seven research-backed daily practices shown to positively impact HRV. 

#1: Pick “HRV-friendly” foods and drinks

According to a 2018 review published in Behavioral Pharmacology, researchers found that the consumption of the following foods or types of diet is associated with higher HRV:

  • Mediterranean diet*
  • Fish
  • Omega-3 fatty acids
  • B-vitamins
  • Probiotics
  • Polyphenols (a category of antioxidant chemicals naturally occurring in fruits and vegetables) 

*The Mediterranean diet is based on the traditional foods of countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea—including Spain, France, Greece, and Italy. It typically encourages people to:

  • Eat more vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, legumes, potatoes, whole grains, herbs, spices, fish, seafood, and extra virgin oil
  • Moderately consume poultry, eggs, cheese, yogurt, and red wine
  • Limit or avoid red meat, sugar-sweetened beverages, added sugars, processed meat, refined grains, other highly processed foods, beers, and liquors 

#2: Moderate alcohol and caffeine consumption

Speaking of beers and liquors…it seems the Mediterranean diet is spot-on about the need to keep all that alcohol chugging and glugging to a minimum. But what’s the cut-off point? Probably lower than you think. In this 2010 study published in the American Physiological Society, researchers found that just two drinks of either red wine or ethanol were enough to decrease (healthy) participants' total HRV by up to 33%. 

And while the research on the effects of caffeine on HRV has shown mixed results—some studies show an increase, some show no change, while others show a reduction—it's never a bad idea to limit your caffeine consumption to 400mg daily (roughly four to five cups of coffee).

#3: Quit smoking 

Cigarette smoking is one of the strongest risk factors for cardiovascular disease. So, it shouldn’t be surprising to hear that research has linked acute and chronic smoking (FYI, acute smoking is defined as an effect measured 24 hours after smoke exposure) to lowered HRV. 

But there’s good news: several studies suggest that smoking’s adverse effects on HRV could be reversed upon quitting. Take this 2014 study published in the International Journal of Behavioral Medicine, for instance. Researchers found that chronic smokers who'd successfully quit displayed significantly higher HRV at follow-up than those who'd relapsed.

#4: Stay physically active 

It’s time to get your sweat on! Regular exercise has been shown to increase HRV in a wide range of demographics—including healthy individuals and those with type 2 diabetes and heart disease. How much exercise should you get, though? In general, you should strive for a weekly minimum of:


  • 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity (e.g., brisk walking and cycling), and
  • Two days of muscle-strengthening activity (e.g., weightlifting, Pilates, and yoga)

#5: Get enough sleep

That is at least seven hours of good quality ZZZs nightly. And driving across the importance of this point is a 2021 study published in Frontiers in Neuroscience. After going through three days with three hours of sleep nightly (i.e., sleep deprivation), the participants exhibited significantly lower HRV than their baseline readings. 

Here are a few tips for better sleep:

  • Stick to a consistent sleep-wake schedule
  • Avoid artificial blue light exposure (e.g., from your phone or laptop screen) before bedtime
  • Make your bedroom cool, dark, and comfortable

#6: Learn how to manage and reduce stress 

Stress—acute and chronic—has been consistently associated with lowered HRV. But, of course, stress isn’t something you can “turn off” at will. So, that means you’ll have to find ways to manage it. Thankfully, there’s no shortage of stress reduction strategies you could experiment with—including meditation, deep breathing, taking a quick walk, or meeting a friend. In fact, here are five things you could do to lower those cortisol levels in five snappy minutes.

#7: Consider chiropractic care

Chiropractic care—where a practitioner (chiropractor) uses pressure to manipulate joints in the body to realign the spine and reduce pain and discomfort—isn't everybody's cup of tea. But if it is yours, you'd be glad to know that there's evidence it could increase HRV. Case in point? This 2018 systematic review of nine studies published in the Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapy. The researchers concluded that osteopathic manual therapy exerted a positive impact on HRV.

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