Your Health

What does heart rate say about health?

Your heart rate is a measure of how many times your heart beats in a minute. For most people, a healthy resting heart rate is between 50 and 90 beats per minute (bpm), but this number can vary depending on factors such as medication and fitness level.

Many people are familiar with how fast their hearts beat when they exercise, through the use of common monitoring devices. But how much do you know about your resting heart rate? This important number is one of the simplest ways to monitor your heart health. It can even help with stress management.

The easiest way to measure your resting heart rate is to put two fingers on the side of your neck or your wrist, count how many beats you feel for 15 seconds and then multiply by four. Or you can download one of the many free smartphone apps that use your phone’s camera to detect your pulse in your fingertip.

What can your heart rate tell you? Several studies have confirmed that the higher your resting heart rate, the greater your risk of death.

Healthy hearts recover

If you are healthy and fit, your heart will recover quickly after exercise, promptly returning to a lower rate. If you are out of shape, however, you’re likely to be huffing and puffing after a workout, while your heart rate stays high for a longer time. You can assess this by measuring your heart rate recovery (HRR) – the difference between beats per minute when exercising vigorously and one minute after stopping exercising.

To find your HRR, exercise at a high intensity for a few minutes. High-intensity exercise is when you can’t say more than three or four words without significant effort, and are breathing mostly through your mouth. Stop exercising and immediately measure your heart rate, then again one minute later. A decrease of 15-25 bpm in the first minute is normal. The greater the decrease, the fitter you are.

The difference between those two numbers can also tell you something about your risk of dying from a heart attack. Studies show that if it drops by 12 or fewer beats in that one minute after exercise, you have a higher risk of death from heart disease.

Monitor your heart rate

Keeping track of your heart rate can give you insight into your fitness level, heart health and emotional health. Many people are walking around with a resting heart rate that is too high due to factors such as too much caffeine, dehydration, inactivity and persistent stress. Those extra heartbeats over time can be taking years off your life.

I recommend tracking your heart rate as well as keeping a journal of which activities are causing higher heart rates. Then use that information to make changes, set priorities and move toward a healthier life. If daily stress is raising your resting heart rate, for example, think twice about taking on that extra project at work or school. Consider adding a morning walk.

A final reminder: Get your doctor’s OK before exercising hard if you have a heart condition or other disorder that could make exercising unsafe. Also keep in mind that certain medications can affect your heart rate, making it a less reliable measurement.

Dr. Ronesh Sinha is a Los Altos-based internal medicine physician with the Palo Alto Medical Foundation.

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