Here’s a quick test you can do to measure the health of your heart:
First thing in the morning, before you even get up from out of your bed, place your index and middle fingers on the inside of your wrist, on the same side of your thumb underneath the fleshy, meaty part, and take your pulse. Measure the amount of beats you feel for 60 seconds and make a note.
What did you get?
Between 70 and 80? Lower? Higher?
What does it mean and, more importantly, why does it matter?
Resting heart rate and normal values defined
By measuring your resting heart rate (RHR), you’re getting info on the number of times your heart has pushed blood through the arteries and veins flowing throughout your body in one minute. The pulsing sensation you feel is created by the pressure of the blood against the artery walls and is a measure of the force of contraction and speed at which your heart is beating.
The number of times your heart beats at rest is a good indication of what shape your heart is in. Most people have an RHR of between 70 and 100 beats per minute (BPM), while those who take part in regular exercise may have an RHR that is less than 60 BPM.
On extreme ends of the spectrum, very fit and athletic people can have an RHR below 50 or, even 40 BPM - while sedentary individuals or those with health concerns may exceed 80 or even 100 BPM!
Which category did you fall into!?
What RHR means for your health and fitness
As discussed, RHR is a measure of how hard the heart has to work to pump blood through the body at rest1. This rate is important because, when resting, the heart should be able to effectively push blood through the entire body with reduced effort when compared to times of physical activity.
A lower RHR indicates that the heart muscle is using the least amount of energy required for this function, which is optimal for overall heart health. A higher resting heart rate, on the other hand, is associated with disease.
Higher RHRs mean that there is an increased demand placed on the heart muscle for long durations of time. This constant heavy workload increases the risk of muscular injury, and also may lead to the death of muscle cells - both of which can ultimately promote heart attack, stroke and even death2,3,4.
Additionally, increased RHR means that the heart is utilizing a lot of energy that could otherwise be used to nourish other body systems and allow them to function properly, which may promote feelings of sluggishness as your body is essentially always working in overdrive.
While RHR is an effective measure for the condition the heart is in5, it’s also a great measure of how your health changes over time when you take part in physical activity6.
As you place more demand on your body during exercise, it’s not only the muscles you can see that become visually stronger and leaner; your heart muscle improves, too. Your heart learns to cope with the increased demands of sending higher volumes of blood to the working parts across your body, and it becomes stronger and fitter.
During exercise, the heart has to increase in rate and contraction strength to meet the demands of the body and increase the supply of nutrient- and oxygen-rich blood, sent to the working parts. Each time you do so, you force the heart muscle to become more effective at coping with this stress and, with time, the heart adjusts to this stress and learns to work as efficiently as possible7.
When you measure your RHR after weeks of exercise, you should notice a significant decrease in the rate as your heart muscle responds positively to the short bursts of stress you’ve placed on it. The adjustment takes place over the course of a few months, and can be noticeable with at little as 20 minutes of cardiovascular exercise done three times a week!
So, if you’re wondering what the heart really wants - the answer is 60 minutes per week of cardio.
Monitoring RHR in your routine
Taking note of your resting heart rate is not only important to determine how well your training is going - but, fluctuations in your resting heart rate can indicate that something else is going on.
If your RHR increases when you’re not active, there may be a number of explanations, for example, that you need to increase fluid intake, decrease caffeine intake, or that your heart is responding to increased levels of stress. In cases such as these, returning your RHR to lower levels can typically be done by making minor lifestyle adjustments.
There are times, however, when severe fluctuations in your RHR can indicate trouble. When you have made the necessary changes in your water and caffeine intake, or you have taken control of your stress levels, but your heart rate is still high at rest, it could indicate less common but more severe conditions, such as tachycardia. If RHR fluctuations are repeated occurrences or if you have additional underlying medical conditions, you should definitely have heart rate fluctuations checked out by a medical professional8,9.
Measuring your RHR can be easily done through a fitness tracker, which automatically reads and records the heart rate at various intervals during the day. If you want to know more about what your heart is doing and how it is able to cope with the changing demands of each environment you find yourself in, measuring your RHR is one easy way to keep on top of this and give you another peek into your inner health!
Wishing you a happy and healthy heart!
- Strath, S.,, et al. Evaluation of heart rate as a method for assessing moderate intensity physical activity. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2000. 32:S465–70.
- Sharashova. E., et al. Resting heart rate predicts incident myocardial infarction, atrial fibrillation, ischaemic stroke and death in the general population: the Tromsø Study. J Epidemiol Community Health. 2016. 70:902–9.
- Tverdal, A., Hjellvik, V., & Selmer R. Heart rate and mortality from cardiovascular causes: a 12 year follow-up study of 379,843 men and women aged 40-45 years. Eur Heart J. 2008. 29:2772–81.
- Aladin, A., et al. Relation of resting heart rate to risk for all-cause mortality by gender after considering exercise capacity (the Henry Ford exercise testing project). Am J Cardiol. 2014. 114:1701–6.
- Seviiri, M., et al. Resting heart rate, temporal changes in resting heart rate, and overall and cause-specific mortality. Heart. 2017. 104(13):1076–1085.
- Silva, D., et al. Association between Resting Heart Rate and Health-Related Physical Fitness in Brazilian Adolescents. BioMed Research International. 2018. 3812197:10.
- Emaus, A., et al. Does a variation in self-reported physical activity reflect variation in objectively measured physical activity, resting heart rate, and physical fitness? Results from the Tromso study. Scand J Public Health. 2010. 38:105–18.
- Jensen, M., et al. Elevated resting heart rate, physical fitness and all-cause mortality: a 16-year follow-up in the Copenhagen Male Study. Heart. 2013. 99(12), 882–887.
- Bohm, M., et al. Resting Heart Rate: Risk Indicator and Emerging Risk Factor in Cardiovascular Disease. The American Journal of Medicine. 2015. 128(3):219-228.