Let’s face facts: Odds are pretty good that you’re not a doctor. Don’t sweat it, your expertise likely lies elsewhere. But what that means is, sometimes your body does certain things, you know, exhibits certain signs, and you’d be completely forgiven for not understanding perfectly what it is your body is trying to tell you. Totally natural!
Take, for instance, the heart. It’s job, as far as most of us lay people can tell, is to beat, pumping blood and delivering oxygen to cells around our bodies. But another reason the heart is important is because of its status as an easily recognizable and measurable sign that we are — or, perhaps aren’t — healthy. The question for us lay people, though, is are we reading that sign correctly?
For example, you might hear someone brag about their super-low “resting heart rate,” and how healthy they are. For the most part, that’s true, but here’s where it gets tricky: You can totally have a normal resting heart rate, AND unhealthy high blood pressure.
Wait — heart rate and blood pressure are two different things? They sure are. If you knew that already, good for you, no need to go any further. But if you’ve been trying to measure the health of your heart with just the former and not the latter, you might want to keep reading.
What is a ‘Resting Heart Rate’ Anyway?
Well, not the same thing as your blood pressure, obviously. “Your resting heart rate is basically exactly what it sounds like,” explains Dr. Janushe Patel, one of Forward’s doctors in San Francisco. “It’s how many times your heart beats per minute when you’re at rest, i.e., not exercising it. Typically, a normal resting heart rate should be between 60 and 100 beats per minute. But if you are going through high levels of stress, anxiety and hormonal imbalances, or taking certain medications, that number can vary.”
But it’s not just stress and your meds that can affect your pulse. According to the American Heart Association (AHA), factors such as weight, the physical position of your body when you measure your pulse and even air temperature can cause fluctuations in your heart rate. And let’s not forget exercise, too, the most obvious factor affecting how fast — or even how slow — your heart beats. “A very physically active person can often have a very low resting heart rate,” Patel explains. “Sometimes as low as 40 beats per minute, and that’s actually very, very common.”
So Then What Does Blood Pressure Measure?
If heart rate is how often your heart beats, then blood pressure is the power those heart beats create. “Blood pressure is basically the force of blood flowing through your blood vessels at a given time,” says Patel. There are two types of measurements: Systolic and diastolic pressure. Systolic pressure, according to the AHA, is the pressure your blood is exerting against your artery walls when the heart beats; diastolic pressure is the pressure your blood is exerting against your artery walls while the heart is resting between beats.
So what’s a healthy blood pressure, then? Ideally, a systolic pressure less than 120, and a diastolic pressure under 80. But if you’re over that, don’t freak out, says Patel. “We follow the Joint National Committee (JNC) guidelines at Forward, which state that, if you’re under 65, you only really to start on medication to treat high blood pressure if your BP is higher than 140 over 90 — otherwise there some simple changes you can make to your lifestyle to lower your blood pressure naturally.”
The Treatment for High Blood Pressure is a Doctor that Cares
If you are in that elevated, but not extremely high blood pressure range, everything you need to do to get your blood pressure down is probably already at your fingertips — you know, like diet and exercise. And if you really want to lock in the kinds of lifestyle changes needed to ensure your pressure gets low and stays there, it helps having someone — like a doctor — helping you along the way. “The reason why I like Forward’s hypertension program is because of the accountability factor,” says Patel. “There’s a lot of times where patients will go to their doctor’s office for the first time, or even the fiftieth time, and be told exactly the same thing: ‘Hey, you have high blood pressure, you should be on medication.’ The one thing about Forward’s hypertension program is that we have a care team that is actually checking in on you, making sure you’re doing well and keeping up with what you need to do to get better. I like the fact that Forward members appreciate that their doctor cares enough to check in on them. You can’t find that anywhere else!”
So, there you have it: now you know the difference between heart rate and blood pressure, and why they both can tell you a lot about how healthy your heart is. Or, in other words, it’s not just how slow or fast you are — it’s also how much effort you use that matters.