A healthy heart does not work like a metronome. Even though its beats feel regular, there are millisecond variations between beats. Heart rate tends to fasten as we inhale and slows down as we exhale. This period between heartbeats is called heart rate variability (HRV). A variety of factors such as exercise, hormonal reactions, stress, and cognitive processes influence HRV. Respiration also directly affects heart rate variability.
Typically, HRV increases during rest when the parasympathetic nervous system should be active. And it naturally decreases at stressful times when the sympathetic nervous system is in charge.
An increased heart rate variability suggests that a person is emotionally balanced and can respond appropriately when faced with various stimuli. On the other hand, people with reduced heart rate variability are at higher risk for many chronic illnesses, including cardiovascular disease and depression. In these people, the parasympathetic nervous system has difficulty kicking in, and the sympathetic nervous system acts as if the body is under constant stress. This is physically very consuming and can cause many physical and mental conditions.
Around 30 per cent of overall HRV can be attributed to genetic factors. This means that heart rate variability can be drastically improved by exercising more, handling stress more effectively and taking measures to improve overall health.
Breathing exercises directly affect heart rate variability by introducing an effective way to cope with stress. The breathing pattern that promotes ideal heart rate variability is coherent breathing, which decreases breathing rate to 5 breaths per minute. This is achieved by inhaling and exhaling for a count of 6. You will feel the soothing effect of coherent breathing after as little as 4 rounds. You may gradually work your way up to 10-20 minutes of this practice for long-term effects such as improved immune system response, more energy, better focus, less stress and anxiety.