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What Your Resting Heart Rate Says About You

cartoon woman sleeping in bed with smart watch monitoring heart rate

A healthy heart does not have a steady beat all the time. It speeds up and slows down in response to the body’s changing needs for oxygen. The resting heart rate, i.e., the number of times the heart beats per minute at rest, can vary from person to person. This article will explain what an ideal resting heart rate is, what your resting heart rate says about the health of your heart, and what you can do to improve your resting heart rate.

What is the resting heart rate (RHR)?

The resting heart rate is the number of times the heart beats per minute when a person is at rest, i.e., not doing any activity. This is when the body’s oxygen needs are lowest, and the heart is pumping at its lowest level.

Doctors consider the resting heart rate a vital sign because it provides a quick snapshot of how well the heart muscle functions. Experts in Preventative Cardiology say the resting heart rate can be used to detect potential heart problems, and it may also reflect improving heart health over time. 

What’s the normal resting heart rate?

In adult men and women, an RHR anywhere between 60 and 100 beats per minute is considered a healthy and normal heart rate. 

What is tachycardia?

A heart rate over 100 beats/minute is called tachycardia. It is worth noting that a high heart rate is not always abnormal. A number of things can increase your heart rate, such as exercising, being under stress, smoking, drinking coffee, heavy alcohol use, and taking certain medications. However, a healthcare professional should evaluate a heart rate that is consistently higher without any explanation. Conditions that can lead to fast heart rates include hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid), electrolyte imbalances, and high or low blood pressure.

What is bradycardia?

A low heart rate under 60 beats/minute is called bradycardia. It can occur due to damage or inflammation of the heart muscle, chemical imbalances in the blood, medical conditions such as hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid) and obstructive sleep apnea, and certain medications.

How do I measure my resting heart rate?

Many fitness trackers will measure your heart rate for you. But if you don’t wear a fitness tracker, measuring your resting heart rate is relatively easy with just two fingers and a stopwatch. Here’s a step-by-step guide:

  1. Make sure you measure your resting heart rate after a period of rest (not within one hour of exercise or a stressful event). According to the American Heart Association, the best time to measure your resting heart rate is first thing in the morning before getting out of bed.
  2. Start with one palm facing up. Place the index and middle finger of the opposite hand on the thumb side of your wrist, where a watch band goes. You should be able to feel a pulse. 
  3. Another location where you can feel a pulse is on the side of your neck, roughly 1-2 inches below your ear.
  4. Set the timer on your phone for 30 seconds. Count the number of pulses (beats) in this 30-second period.
  5. Double the number of beats to get your resting heart rate per minute. 

What does a higher or lower resting heart rate mean?

Studies have shown that a resting heart rate of 75 beats/minute in men in their 50s is associated with a greater risk of cardiovascular disease and premature death. 

In women, the Women’s Health Initiative Study found that a resting heart rate at the lower end of the normal range offers protection against heart attacks. Women with RHRs above 76 heart beats/minute were found to have a 26% greater risk of heart attack than women with RHRs below 62 beats/minute.

Lower heart rates (RHR under 60 beats/minute) can indicate physical fitness. In other words, if you have an RHR under 60, you are likely more physically fit and have better heart function than people with higher resting heart rates. If you don’t participate in a regular exercise program and have a resting heart rate below 50 beats/minute, it could indicate a health problem such as a problem with the electrical pathways in your heart such as heart block, for example. If this is the case, you should seek a professional medical evaluation.

An elevated RHR over 100 beats/minute may reflect exposure to stress, excessive caffeine consumption, an infection, an illness, or a problem such as a heart arrhythmia. If your resting heart rate is consistently above 80 beats/minute and can’t be explained by obvious factors, especially if you’re experiencing symptoms such as palpitations, you should consult a doctor. 

How can I lower my resting heart rate?

Various factors that you cannot control can affect your resting heart rate, such as your gender and genetics. However, several controllable factors affect your RHR. Here are some health tips you can follow to lower your RHR:

  • Make sure you exercise regularly. This can help bring your resting heart rate down by 10-12 beats. For every week that you participate in physical activity, your RHR can decrease by up to one beat/minute. Elite endurance athletes commonly have RHRs in the upper 30s or lower 40s.
  • Reduce stress and anxiety with natural relaxation techniques like yoga and meditation.
  • Limit the intake of caffeinated beverages such as coffee, tea, and sodas.
  • Quit smoking. Nicotine increases your heart rate and is linked to an increased risk of developing heart disease.
  • Don’t binge drink. More than four drinks a day can stress your heart and cause it to beat faster.
  • Review your medications with a health care professional. Before starting a new medication, ask about its potential effects on your heart rate. Some over-the-counter medications and prescription medications, such as certain cold medications, weight loss drugs, and stimulants, can increase your RHR. Also, RHR falls as a side effect of certain medications like beta-blockers.

Closing Thoughts

Resting heart rate (RHR) is the number of times your heart beats when you’re resting. Generally speaking, a low RHR is indicative of better heart health. A high resting heart rate is associated with a higher risk of developing heart disease and/or suffering a heart attack. 

Regular vigorous exercise is the best way to lower your resting heart rate. People who participate in a regular exercise program tend to have a lower resting heart rate than people who lead a sedentary lifestyle. Consult a healthcare provider if you have unusually low or high resting heart rates.

References:

  1. https://www.henryford.com/blog/2019/09/resting-heart-rate-says-about-you
  2. https://www.health.harvard.edu/heart-health/what-your-heart-rate-is-telling-you
  3. https://www.bmj.com/company/newsroom/mid-life-resting-heart-rate-of-75-beats-min-linked-to-doubling-in-early-death-risk/#