What Your Heart Rate Means and How to Check It

| How-To

Your pulse can reveal your risk for heart attacks and other underlying illnesses. A healthy heart doesn’t need to beat at the same rate continually, it’s healthy for your pulse to speed up and slow down throughout the day. However, a heart rate outside of the normal range may signify a serious health concern. Monitoring your heart rate and having a sense of what's normal is a simple way to protect yourself against heart disease.

What’s a Healthy Heart Rate?

According to the American Heart Association, a resting heart rate between 60 and 100 beats per minute is healthy for most adults. In general, the more physically fit you are, the lower your heart rate will be. When it comes to heart rate, lower is usually better.

When you exercise, you want your heart rate to go up, but not too much. Your maximum heart rate is about 220 minus your age. When exercising, you should aim to keep your heart rate within 85% of the maximum. For example, if you’re 40 years old, when exercising your heart rate shouldn’t exceed 153 beats per minute.

How to Check Your Heart Rate

You can feel your heart rate by counting your pulse. Try putting your first two fingers on the inside of your wrist, the inside of your elbow, the side of your neck, or on the top of your foot. Once you find it, count how many beats you feel in 60 seconds; you can also count the beats in 15 seconds and multiply that number by 4.

Factors that Can Affect Your Resting Heart Rate

Resting heart rates can vary by individual and are affected by factors like age, activity level, and overall health. Some additional factors include:

  • Warm weather: Your heart rate may increase when you’re exposed to hot weather
  • Extreme emotional highs or lows: Extreme emotions can cause your heart to beat faster
  • Smoking: Smokers tend to have a higher resting heart rate
  • Medication side effects: Depending on the medication, side effects can cause your heart rate to increase or decrease
  • Bodyweight: People with obesity may have a higher resting heart rate
  • Standing from a sitting position: Your heart rate can increase temporarily when you move from a sitting to a standing position

How to Lower Your Heart Rate

For most adults, a fast heart rate is defined as above 100 bpm and is referred to as tachycardia in medical terms. A fast heart rate can be temporary when caused by factors like anxiety or caffeine, but it can also indicate an underlying health condition.

To quickly lower your heart rate, take a moment to rest or slow down. It can be as simple as sitting down, drinking a glass of water, or taking a few deep breaths. Living a heart-healthy lifestyle will help to regulate your heart rate long term.

How to Increase Your Heart Rate

A slow heart rate, referred to as bradycardia in medical terms, is defined as a heart rate below 60 bpm for most adults, or below 40 bpm for athletes. Most instances of prolonged slow heart rate are caused by underlying conditions or medication side effects that should be addressed with your doctor.

In general, a lower heart rate is better. However, periodically increasing your heart rate is a step towards good heart health. Being physically active is one of the most effective tools for strengthening the heart muscle and warding off heart disease. You can increase your heart rate through many types of exercise like aerobics, resistance training, and stretching.

When to See a Doctor

Prolonged periods of unexplained changes in heart rate may indicate a serious health condition, reach out if your heart rate is too fast or slow. If you feel weak, dizzy, or faint, talk with your doctor to determine if it’s an emergency. If you have any questions about heart health or your heart rate, contact your primary doctor.

~April Burnside, RNC-OB , Patient Care Supervisor - Schneck Cardiovascular Services