Heart Rate: Learn your rhythm
Most fitness buffs are aware of their heart rate and monitor it for their own edification. But even if you’re not an athlete, knowledge about your heart rate can help you monitor your fitness level — and it might even help you spot developing health problems. Your heart rate, or pulse, is the number of times your heart beats per minute. Normal heart rate varies from person to person and knowing yours can be an important heart-health gauge.
“Your heart is a muscle and just like strengthening other muscles by doing activities, you can do the same thing with your heart,” said Dr. Mary Ann Bauman, an internist at Integris Baptist Medical Center in Oklahoma City.
Knowledge about your heart rate can help you monitor your fitness level, and it may help you spot developing health problems if you are experiencing other symptoms.
“As you age, changes in the rate and regularity of your pulse can change and may signify a heart condition or other condition that needs to be addressed,” said Richard Stein, M.D., professor of medicine and cardiology at the New York University School of Medicine in New York City and a volunteer for the American Heart Association.
How do I find my heart rate?
The best places to find your pulse are the:
- inside of your elbow
- side of your neck
- top of the foot
How do I calculate my heart rate?
To get the most accurate reading, put your finger over your pulse and count the number of beats in 60 seconds.
Most commonly, maximum heart rate is calculated by subtracting your age from 220:
- 220 – Age. For a 30-year-old person, for example: 220 – 30 = 190.
The target zone for a 30-year-old person would be between 50 and 85% of his or her maximum heart rate:
- 50 percent level: 190 x 0.50 = 95 bpm
- 85 percent level: 190 x 0.85 = 162 bpm
The formula for maximum heart rate works well for people under 40 but for older people it may overestimate their maximum heart rate, Bauman said. For older people, a better formula for the maximum heart rate is:
- 208 – (0.75 x Age)
You can either manually calculate your heart rate during exercise or use heart rate monitors that wrap around the chest, or are included in sports watches and fitness devices.
Your resting heart rate is the heart pumping the lowest amount of blood you need because you’re not exercising. If you’re sitting or lying down and you’re calm, relaxed and aren’t ill, your heart rate is normally between 60 (beats per minute) and 100 (beats per minute), Stein said.
But a heart rate lower than 60 doesn’t necessarily signal a medical problem. It could be the result of taking a drug such as a beta blocker.
Beta-blockers are one of the most widely prescribed classes of drugs to treat hypertension (high blood pressure) and are a mainstay treatment of congestive heart failure. Beta-blockers work by blocking the effects of epinephrine and slowing the heart’s rate, thereby decreasing the heart’s demand for oxygen. Long-term use of beta-blockers helps manage chronic heart failure.
A lower heart rate is also common for people who get a lot of physical activity or are very athletic, Stein said. Active people often have lower heart rates because their heart muscle is in better condition and doesn’t need to work as hard to maintain a steady beat.
“Moderate physical activity doesn’t usually change the resting pulse much,” Stein said. “If you’re very fit, it could change to 40. A less active person might have a heart rate between 60 and 100,” he added. That’s because the heart muscle has to work harder to maintain bodily functions, making it higher.
Other factors that affect heart rate:
- Air temperature: Higher humidity and temperatures cause the heart to pump a little more blood, so your pulse rate may increase, but usually no more than five to 10 beats a minute.
- Body position: Resting, sitting or standing, your pulse is usually the same. Sometimes as you stand for the first 15 to 20 seconds, your pulse may go up a little bit, but after a couple of minutes it should settle down.
- Emotions: If you’re stressed, anxious or “extraordinarily happy or sad” your emotions can raise your pulse.
- Body size: Body size usually doesn’t usually change pulse. If you’re very obese, you might see a higher resting pulse than normal, but usually not more than 100.
- Medication use: Meds that block your adrenaline (beta blockers) tend to slow your pulse, while too much thyroid medication or too high of a dosage will raise it.
When to call your doctor:
If you’re on a beta blocker to decrease your heart rate or to control a another abnormal rhythm, your doctor may ask you to monitor and log your heart rate. Keeping tabs on your heart rate can help your doctor determine whether to change the dosage or switch to a different medication.
A number of conditions can affect your heart rate. An arrhythmia causes the heart to beat too fast, too slow or with an irregular rhythm.
Tachycardia is generally considered to be a resting heart rate of over 100 beats per minute, according to the National Institutes of Health, and generally caused when electrical signals in the heart’s upper chambers fire abnormally. If the heart rate is closer to 150 bpm or higher, it is a condition known as supraventricular tachycardia (SVT). In SVT, your heart’s electrical system, which controls the heart rate, is out of whack. This generally requires medical attention.
Bradycardia is a condition where the heart rate is too low, typically less than 60 bpm. This can be the result of problems with the sinoatrial node, which acts as the pacemaker, or damage to the heart as a result of a heart attack or cardiovascular disease.
Although there’s a wide range of normal, an unusually high or low heart rate may indicate an underlying problem. Consult your doctor if your resting heart rate is consistently above 100 beats a minute (tachycardia) or if you’re not a trained athlete and your resting heart rate is below 60 beats a minute (bradycardia) — especially if you have other signs or symptoms, such as fainting, dizziness or shortness of breath.
“If your pulse is very low or if you have frequent episodes of unexplained fast heart rates, especially if they cause you to feel weak or dizzy or faint, tell your doctor, who can decide if it’s an emergency,” Stein said. “Your pulse is one tool to help get a picture of your health.
Sources: American Heart Association,