Heart health unveiled: Decoding your resting heart rate’s secrets

The options seem boundless in a world teeming with gadgets tracking your every move, from steps taken to weekly workouts and even nocturnal REM sleep cycles.

No shortage of wearables can tell you how many steps you’ve taken, the number of times you’ve exercised this week and even how much REM sleep you got last night.

However, one metric that can tell you a lot about your health that you don’t need fancy accessories for at all: your resting heart rate.

Resting heart rate is just what it sounds like – the number of times your heart beats per minute at rest [1]. A healthy adult’s average resting heart rate is between 60 and 100 beats per minute.

To measure your heart rate, place two fingers on your neck next to your windpipe, and keep track of how many times your heart beats in one minute.

According to cardiologists, there is an important lesson you can learn about your heart health once you know what your resting heart rate is.

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Your resting heart rate can reveal a lot about your cardiovascular health

Measuring your resting heart rate is a simple way of knowing how well your heart functions. Triple-board certified cardiologist Dr Ernst von Schwarz MD, PhD, FESC, FACC, FSCAI, a clinical professor of medicine at UCLA, explains that the heart is a muscle and its job is to pump blood throughout the body [2]. 

How well it can do this depends on its ability to contract (or beat). The number of times it beats determines how much blood it can pump.

Dr von Schwarz says that if the heart becomes weak, the heart beats faster to make up for weak heart contractions to pump out the same amount of blood. “Changes in heart rate can represent an underlying cardiac problem, [or] other problems, such as an infection or thyroid issue,” he says.

In general, cardiologist and Enabled Healthcare founder Dr Bethany Doran, MD, MPH, says that most athletes tend to have a resting heart rate on the low end of the 60 beats to 100 beats per minute spectrum [3].

“This is often related to the exercise they do, which trains their heart to be more efficient at pumping blood while they are exercising so that when resting, they can also get more blood to their bodies with fewer heartbeats,” she says, adding that this is typically a positive attribute.

Both cardiologists say that there are many reasons why someone may have a high resting heart rate – not all of them are worrisome.

For example, Dr von Schwarz says it could mean someone just drank coffee or an energy drink, as stimulants can increase heart rate. 

He says that being in pain or taking medications such as thyroid medication or appetite suppressants may also raise the heart rate. (Illegal drugs, such as cocaine, can too.)

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Then come the reasons for a high resting heart rate that is more eyebrow-raising. According to cardiologists, these include experiencing anxiety or fear, hyperthyroidism, being dehydrated or experiencing a heat stroke, having a fever, not getting enough oxygen, cardiac abnormalities or heart failure. 

Is a low resting heart rate problematic? Dr Doran says that a heart rate of 50 beats per minute that isn’t accompanied by other symptoms is not something to be worried about typically, but if someone is elderly, has a low heart rate, and is experiencing shortness of breath or dizziness, they should see a healthcare provider for immediate care.

When your resting heart rate is consistently too high

If your resting heart rate is occasionally higher than the normal range, Dr Doran says it isn’t something to worry about. But suppose your resting heart rate is consistently higher than the normal range.

In that case, seeing a doctor is essential because, particularly for older adults, Dr Doran says this could be a sign of arrhythmia, such as atrial fibrillation [4].

Generally, atrial fibrillation is not life-threatening, but it can be uncomfortable and often does require treatment because it increases the risk of blood clots.

Dr Doran also recommends that people with a consistently high resting heart rate get an EKG to ensure there is nothing wrong with the heart.

In terms of lowering your resting heart rate, Dr von Schwarz says that this comes down to pinpointing the underlying cause.

Are you drinking a lot of coffee or energy drinks? Are you overly anxious, living in a constant state of fight or flight? 

Knowing why your resting heart rate is high before knowing what to do about it is vital.

No matter what your resting heart rate is, something everyone can do to support their cardiovascular health is getting regular exercise. 

The American Heart Association suggests getting 150 minutes (or 2.5 hours) of heart-pumping physical activity a week to support your heart [5].

When you purposely engage in activities that get your heart rate up, you’re doing something that will help your soul rest easy and that means you can rest easy too [6].

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[1] https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/fitness/expert-answers/heart-rate/faq-20057979
[2] https://www.drvonschwarz.com/
[3] https://enabled.healthcare/who-we-are/
[4] https://www.nhsinform.scot/illnesses-and-conditions/heart-and-blood-vessels/conditions/atrial-fibrillation
[5] https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/fitness/fitness-basics/aha-recs-for-physical-activity-in-adults
[6] http://bitly.ws/Fny7

Photograph: gstockstudio/Envato
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