Your Resting Heart Rate Tells a Story About You
Every doctor’s visit starts the same way in most practices. Someone takes your temperature, your blood pressure and your pulse. The vitals.
Obviously temperature will reveal whether you have a fever or not. Blood pressure reveals a lot, too. But what story does your pulse tell? It may advertise how fit you are.
On health sites all over the web, you will read that the “normal” pulse for adults is 60 to 80 beats per minute (bpm). Some sites extend that to 100 beats a minute, with women tending to have somewhat higher rates than men.
The higher range is questionable. A study published in the British Journal of Medicine found that the risk of heart disease among women was linked to a 26% higher risk for heart disease within several years for the women whose pulses were higher than 76 bpm.
Your “resting heart rate” measures your pulse when you are relaxed—not stressed, not unusually worried, not soon after you’ve exercised. Depending on how fast you recover, that could be two hours after strenuous exercise. The term “resting heart rate” is open to some confusion. Some people consider the real resting pulse to be your heart rate when you first wake up, before you have moved around at all. You might want to check that out of curiosity. It will probably be lower than your daytime resting when you are not as relaxed.
In general, the rules are these:
- Measure at your wrist, neck, or wherever you can feel your pulse clearly
- Count for 20 seconds and multiply by three to get beats per minute
- Measure when calm—at least 1-2 hours after exercise or drinking coffee or other stimulants
- Don’t take after sitting or standing for long periods because that can change your rate. Pulse rates tend to rise for every 10 minutes you stand.
It’s not just women who need to keep an eye on their pulse, though. A 16-year-long study on 3,000 men found the chance of death was doubled for those men who had resting heart rates between 81 and 90. It was three times as high for those who had pulses over 90.
If your pulse falls under 60, you have bradycardia—which means slow pulse. If it’s over 100, it is medically defined as tachycardia. In both cases, you should ask your doctor to check that all is well. Well-conditioned athletes often have resting heart rates under 60 and it’s a good sign.
When researchers measured the subjects physical fitness by using VO2 Max, they found a regular, strong association between fitness and pulse. The higher the pulse, the lower the VO2Max. Lower VO2Max indicates less oxygen in the bloodstream and poorer physical condition.
Certain habits can raise your resting heart rate—drinking alcohol, worry, becoming dehydrated, and stimulants like caffeine. These are temporary effects.
For a longer-term and truly beneficial change, it is possible to change your resting rate for the better with exercise. If you can handle 150 minutes a week of aerobic exercise, you’re almost certain to make a difference unless something else, like a medicine you take, interferes. Yoga is also proven to be effective.
But if those sound daunting, you can begin easily. Harvard Health recommends regular brisk walks, swimming or bicycling as well.