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Feel the beat

Your resting heart rate can be an instant measure of your present and future health.

heart rate pulse
Image: Bigstock

One of the easiest ways to gauge your health can be done in 30 seconds with two fingers. Measuring your resting heart rate (RHR), the number of heartbeats per minute while at rest, provides a real-time snapshot of your heart muscle function.

It is easy to do. Place your index and middle finger on your wrist just below the thumb, or on your neck to one side of your throat, so you can feel your pulse. Use a watch to count the number of beats for 30 seconds and double it to get your beats per minute. Repeat a few times to get an accurate reading. A normal RHR for most adults ranges from 60 to 100 beats per minute.

To ensure you get an accurate RHR reading, follow these steps:

  • Do not measure your heart rate within one to two hours after exercise or a stressful event. Your heart rate can stay elevated after strenuous activities.

  • Wait an hour after consuming caffeine, which can cause heart palpitations and make your heart rate rise.

  • Do not take the reading after you have been sitting or standing for a long period, which can affect your heart rate.

All in the numbers

When considered in the context of other markers, such as blood pressure and cholesterol, your RHR can be used to identify potential health problems before they manifest as well as to measure your current heart health.

“In certain cases, a lower RHR can mean a higher degree of fitness, which is associated with reduced rates of cardiac events like heart attacks,” says Dr. Jason Wasfy, director of quality and analytics at Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital Heart Center. “However, a high RHR could be a sign of potential heart problems as the more beats your heart has to take, the greater the eventual toll on its overall function.”

In fact, recent research has found that an RHR near the top of the 60-to-100 range may increase your risk for cardiovascular disease, other health problems, and even early death.

A 2013 study in The BMJ tracked the cardiovascular health of about 3,000 men for 16 years and found that a high RHR was linked with lower physical fitness and higher blood pressure, body weight, and levels of circulating blood fats.

The researchers also discovered that the higher a person’s RHR, the greater the risk of premature death. Specifically, a RHR of 81 to 90 doubled the chance of death, while a RHR higher than 90 tripled it. Even those these numbers are within the normal range, the findings highlight the potential dangers of a high RHR.

Your RHR also may point toward possible diabetes, suggests a study published online May 22, 2015, by the International Journal of Epidemiology. Researchers measured RHR among 100,000 adults for four years.

They found that those with a higher RHR had a greater risk of diabetes, prediabetes, and conversion from prediabetes to diabetes. In fact, an additional 10 beats per minute was associated with a 23% increase in risk of diabetes.

Check early and often

Dr. Wasfy recommends checking your RHR a few times per week and at different times of the day. Keep in mind that the number can be influenced by many factors, including circulating hormones, stress and anxiety, and medications such as antidepressants, beta blockers, and calcium-channel blockers.

Consult your doctor if you routinely have a high RHR. If your RHR is within the normal range or a bit high, there are ways to lower and manage it. Here are some suggestions:

Keep cholesterol in check. High levels restrict blood flow through the arteries and damage blood vessels, which means your heart has to beat faster to move blood through your body.

Perform regular aerobic exercise. Active people tend to have a lower RHR. “The more you exercise, the better your physical fitness, but even small amounts of exercise can make a change,” says Dr. Wasfy. Intensity is the key. One study involving 55-year-old adults found that just one hour per week of high-intensity aerobic training (about 66% of maximum effort) lowered RHR more efficiently than a low-intensity effort (33% of maximum effort).

Can RHR be too low?

While a low RHR often means greater physical fitness, there can be times when your RHR can be too low—in general lower than 50—which may cause occasional dizziness or fatigue. “This may be the result of the electrical nodes of the heart aging, or not transmitting electrical signals correctly,” says Dr. Jason Wasfy of Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital Heart Center. You should report any dizziness or fatigue to your doctor.

Posted by: Dr.Health

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