Pulse taking is an ancient technique, dating back thousands of years, but these days you'd almost never know it. Long gone are the days of placing two fingers against your neck while watching the clock. Now, measuring your resting heart rate is as easy as firing up a smartphone app or saying, "Siri, what's my heart rate?"
The ease at which you can detect your resting heart rate -- and track it over time -- has led to a sort of heart-rate renaissance among non-medical professionals, with everyone from health nuts to fitness fanatics trying to use it to their advantage. But the wealth of resting heart rate data available literally at your fingertips doesn't mean anything if you don't know how to interpret it.
Below, a primer that will help get you up to speed before you next doctor's appointment.
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What's a normal resting heart rate?
Resting heart rate (RHR) -- the number of times your heart beats per minute at rest -- is a quick way to gauge how efficiently your heart is working. What's considered normal can vary widely from person to person, but in general, your RHR should fall between 60 and 100 beats per minute.
If your RHR is consistently above 100 beats per minute (a condition known as tachycardia), you should consult a doctor, especially if you're experiencing other symptoms, such as chest tightness, fatigue or shortness of breath.
A high resting heart (ie >100 bpm) can mean many things," says cardiologist Jennifer Haythe, MD, co-director of Columbia Women's Heart Center. "You may be dehydrated, have a poor level of physical fitness, or it could be a sign of something more serious with your heart or lungs."
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If you're not particularly fit and your RHR is consistently below 60 beats per minute, you may have bradycardia, which can be accompanied by lightheadedness, dizziness, or chest discomfort.
"A slow heart rate can likewise mean many different things," says Haythe. "It could be completely normal, a sign of excellent physical fitness, or it could signify a heart problem. If your resting heart rate is significantly below 60 and you don't feel well, you should go to the doctor and get an EKG."
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Factors that affect resting heart rate
When measuring your RHR, keep in mind that there are a number of things that can affect your reading, including:
- Age: RHR can decrease with age, according to some studies.
- Gender: On average, women's RHR tends to be two to seven beats per minute higher than men's.
- Air temperature: RHR can increase during hot weather, but usually not more than 10 bpm.
- Emotions: Strong feelings of stress, anxiety, or even happiness can raise your RHR.
- Body position: RHR can be 3 bpm higher when sitting versus lying down. Similarly, RHR tends to increase a bit upon standing.
- Medication: Prescription drugs like antidepressants and beta blockers can cause your RHR to be higher or lower than it would if you weren't taking the medication.
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So your resting heart rate is normal -- now what?
Congrats! A normal RHR reading is definitely a good thing, but if you're monitoring it for fitness or wellness-related reasons, it's not the only thing to pay attention to. That's because "normal" doesn't necessarily equal "healthy."
In fact, in a recent study, middle-aged men who had a RHR of 75 bpm or higher at the start of the study were twice as likely to die over the next 11 years, compared to men with a RHR of 55 or below.
"Ideally, you want your resting heart rate to be somewhere between 50 and 70 bpm," says Haythe. "But I don't think that people need to be obsessively checking." Once a month is totally fine.
"Something also very important is how quickly your heart rate comes down after you exercise," Haythe said. "We want to see that your heart rate is slow at rest, that it increases appropriately with exercise, and that it comes down quickly after aerobic activity -- within a few minutes."
Regardless of which method you use, when trying to gauge how healthy you are, one thing is certain: Any results should be considered alongside other metrics, like blood pressure and cholesterol, in consultation with your doctor, especially if you notice changes over time.
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The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.