Your heart rate—also known as your pulse—is the number of times your heart beats in one minute. As you go about your usual daily activities, your heart rate climbs and falls. It probably jumps higher when you’re under stress or after you walk up a flight of stairs, and it likely falls when you’re sitting at your desk or slowly browsing around a shop.
Your heart rate is at its lowest when you’re at rest, and it beats at a fairly steady pace until something makes it spike.
What is resting heart rate?
Resting heart rate (RHR) is the number of beats per minute it takes for your heart to pump the least amount of blood your body needs when you’re completely at rest. For most healthy adults, a normal resting heart rate is between 60 and 100 beats per minute (bpm).
Although resting heart rate may vary slightly from day to day, it provides a fairly accurate picture of your heart health and overall health over time. A RHR that rises steadily, whether over weeks, months, or years, maybe an important sign of developing heart disease—and it’s a good idea to schedule a visit with your doctor right away.
How do you measure your resting heart rate?
It’s easy to measure your resting heart rate, and all you need are a couple of fingers and a stopwatch or a clock with a second hand.
Where to measure: The best place on your body to measure your pulse is over the radial artery, located on the inside of your wrist, just below the thumb. You can also use the carotid artery on the side of your neck.
When to measure: Measure your RHR at the same time each day when you’re calm, relaxed, and sitting or lying quietly. First thing in the morning is ideal, after a good night’s sleep and before you have your first cuppa joe.
How to measure: Place your pointer and middle fingers lightly over the artery to locate the pulse. Start a timer, and count the beats for 60 seconds. The resulting number is your resting heart rate in beats per minute.
Although you can also count beats for 15 seconds and multiply by four—or count for 30 seconds and multiply by two—counting for the full minute offers the most accurate results.
If you’re more of a high-tech type, a range of wearable, portable, and plug-in heart monitors can measure your resting heart rate and other indicators of heart health, either continuously or with the push of a button—and some even include apps that compile the data into charts for you.
What factors can affect your resting heart rate?
A few environmental factors may increase your resting pulse rate, either temporarily or over the long-term:
- High air temperature or humidity
- Standing up from a seated position
- Chronic stress
- Heightened emotions
- Heavy alcohol or drug abuse
- Decongestants or allergy medications
- Chronic sleep deprivation
- General poor health
Likewise, a couple of factors can lower your resting heart rate:
- Medications like beta blockers
- A high level of physical activity
What is a good resting heart rate by age and sex?
Your age and sex also have an important influence on your resting heart rate. In general, women have smaller hearts than men do, which means each beat produces less blood flow. Women’s resting heart rates are, on average, around 3.5 beats per minute faster than their male counterparts.
As we age, our resting pulse increases slightly, but a RHR that increases significantly over time may be an indication of a cardiovascular problem at any age.
While a normal resting heart rate for most adults is between 60 and 100 bpm, highly athletic adults may have a RHR as low as 40 bpm, but this is too low for people who aren’t in top physical condition — it may be an indication that your heart isn’t pumping enough blood to provide adequate oxygen to your brain and other organs. If this is the case, you may experience symptoms like:
- Chest pain
- Dizziness or light-headedness
- Tiring easily during physical activity
- Shortness of breath
How does your resting heart rate impact your future health?
In general, a lower resting heart rate is an indication of better physical fitness and may offer some protection against heart attacks. A higher resting heart rate may be a sign of coronary heart disease and a higher risk of stroke. For people with diabetes or high blood pressure, a high resting pulse may predict other non-cardiovascular diseases and sudden death.
If your resting heart rate rises or decreases over time, talk to your doctor to determine the cause and create a plan to address it.
Resting heart rate over 100
A RHR above 100 bpm is known as tachycardia, which can prevent the heart’s chambers from filling up completely between contractions and may reduce blood flow to the rest of the body.
Resting heart rate under 60
A RHR under 60 bpm is known as bradycardia, but often, this isn’t a cause for concern—especially in young people and physically fit adults. It’s also normal for your heart rate to dip below 60 bpm during sleep.
But if you’re experiencing symptoms, visit your doctor to rule out serious problems, even if you’re physically fit. Bradycardia may be caused by problems with the heart’s natural pacemaker, low levels of thyroid hormones, heart damage, or certain heart medications. If not treated, it can lead to high or low blood pressure or heart failure.
How can you lower your resting heart rate?
If you have a high or increasing resting heart rate, lowering it will improve your cardiovascular and overall health. It won’t happen overnight, but these lifestyle changes can lower your RHR over time.
- Exercise. Moving your body is the number one way to lower your resting heart rate. Your heart is a muscle, and when you exercise it by making it work harder, it becomes stronger. And when it’s stronger, it pumps blood more easily, with fewer beats, when you’re resting.
Aerobic exercise increases your pulse rate — it’s a targeted workout for your heart — and improves its ability to pull oxygen from the blood so that it doesn’t need to pump harder to get more blood into the muscles. Aerobic exercise also reduces stress hormones, promotes weight loss, and increases your good (HDL) cholesterol — all of which can lower your resting heart rate.
The Centers for Disease Control recommends getting at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise or at least 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity exercise each week for optimal heart (and overall) health.
When you engage in moderate-intensity aerobic exercise, like brisk walking or biking, your heart rate will be low enough that you can talk in sentences, but high enough that you can’t sing. So give the old “Happy Birthday” song a shot, and if you get through it, step up your intensity.
When you’re doing high-intensity exercise, like running or swimming laps, you should be breathing pretty fast and hard. You should only be able to say a few words before you have to pause to catch your breath.
- Quit smoking. Smoking cigarettes promotes plaque buildup in arteries, raises blood pressure, and may cause irregular heart rhythms—all of which make your heart work harder. Quitting smoking greatly reduces this strain on your heart, lowers your resting heart rate, and reduces your risk of heart attack, stroke, heart disease, and many other health problems.
- Eat well and hydrate. Good nutrition helps you lose weight and maintain good overall heart health. Dehydration can thicken your blood, making your heart work harder to pump it through your body. Drink plenty of water to keep your blood circulating with ease.
- Sleep tight. Plenty of quality sleep is essential for good overall health—and good heart health. The CDC points out that adults who sleep less than seven hours per night are more likely to have health problems like high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, and type 2 diabetes, and they have a higher risk of heart attack and stroke.
- Reduce your stress. Chronic stress contributes to high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, and other serious medical—and mental health—problems. Reducing your stress can help lower your resting heart rate. Address the stressors in your life, and practice deep-breathing exercises when you’re particularly stressed. Daily mindfulness meditation is proven to reduce chronic stress, and it even changes the way your body responds to stress.
Your resting heart rate isn’t the only indicator of heart health. The best way to monitor your heart—whether you’re healthy and want to keep it that way or you have a medical condition that requires it—is to take a holistic approach that also includes monitoring your heart rate variability, blood oxygen levels, cholesterol, and blood pressure, which is different from heart rate.
Forward’s Heart Health Program is a 12-week, doctor-led program that includes a full heart evaluation using blood and genetic testing, in-office and at-home diagnostics, a personalized diet and exercise program, and weekly ongoing monitoring and support. This program takes a holistic approach to heart health and can help you improve your cardiovascular health, reduce the risk of heart disease, or slow the progression of heart-related illness.