Sure, we all know that our heart rate plays a role in our overall health — but did you know that having a high resting heart rate could be putting you at risk?
As a constantly occurring action in the human body, most people are not actively aware of the beating of their hearts on a day-to-day basis. Capable of adapting based on our exercise or stress levels, our heart will speed up or slow down our heart rate to keep up with our metabolic needs — but there is always a baseline level that it will return to, which is what health professionals refer to as our resting heart rate.
Maintained during periods of relaxation (like when you are hanging out on the couch or resting in bed), your heart should be beating at your baseline resting heart rate level. As a metric that various medical comorbidities and situations can impact, accurate measurement monitoring is essential to stay on top of your cardiac health.
So, with this in mind, let’s take a deep dive into everything about resting heart rate, from discussing its definition and the best way to measure it to exploring lifestyle changes and potential genetic factors that may impact your average resting heart rate over time.
Here is everything you need to know about your resting heart rate and what you can do to improve it:
What is a resting heart rate?
As one of the five core vital signs measured when you visit your doctor, our heart rate says a lot about our general health. Defined as the number of beats per minute (BPM) that our heart makes, our heart rate constantly changes to meet our current metabolic needs.
For most people, their resting heart rate is not something they think about or feel as they go about their daily activities. As the baseline rate that our heart returns to when we are not exerting ourselves physically, our resting heart rate should be a low enough rate that does not cause continual stress and burden on our cardiovascular system. According to the American Heart Association, the average adult should aim to have a resting heart rate between 60-100 BPM, with values in the lower end of this range indicating improved cardiovascular health.
But why is having a lower resting heart rate the desired goal for overall health? To better understand this, we need to explore the basics of human anatomy and the circulatory system.
The anatomy of our heart
Our heart is the primary driving force that moves our blood to our organs and limbs. With every beat, the heart pushes blood containing oxygen, nutrients, and waste to and from our cells, which allows our body to perform the many necessary tasks needed for us to live a healthy lifestyle. But, to get our blood to our furthest extremities, each heartbeat applies a significant amount of pressure to the lining of our major arteries and veins — something that can lead to considerable damage if a person’s baseline resting heart rate is chronically high.
Over time, if the pressure and stress on your circulatory system remain high (even when you are at rest due to an elevated resting heart rate), your risk of developing serious cardiovascular complications increases. If left untreated, these complications can even become fatal, as people with high resting heart rates are more likely to experience cardiovascular events such as strokes and heart attacks.
How to accurately measure your resting heart rate
Now that we understand the importance of keeping your resting heart rate within healthy limits, you may want to measure yours to see where your baseline falls. Thankfully, you do not need a medical degree to accurately measure your resting heart rate — it is actually something that you can do quite easily from your own home.
Examples of different ways that you can accurately measure your resting heart rate include:
- Radial pulse readings — As one of the most common ways used to measure a person’s pulse manually, a radial pulse reading involves palpating the pulse of the radial artery that runs along the outside aspect of the inner forearm. Using light pressure, hold your pointer and middle finger at the base of the hand, and count the number of beats you feel over 30 seconds. Once completed, times that number by two to determine your resting heart rate for measurement.
- Carotid pulse readings — If finding the radial pulse proves to be difficult, the carotid pulse can also be used to determine your resting heart rate. Using your pointer and middle finger, lightly palpate the carotid artery on your neck (usually located on either side of your throat). Press into the area with mild pressure until you feel a pulse, and then count the number of beats you feel over 30 seconds and times the number by to for your reading.
- Apical pulse readings — Apical pulse measurement, which refers to the practice of using a stethoscope to listen to a series of points above and below the heart, is another available option for reading your pulse. Because this type of measurement requires advanced medical knowledge and equipment, it is most commonly used by healthcare professionals only.
- Using a wearable fitness device — As wearable fitness trackers become more and more popular, many people are interested in their heart rate measurement abilities. From popular favorites like the Apple Watch and Fitbit to more specialized products like the InBody BAND 2 and Kardia 6 monitor, it is important to note that not all fitness trackers are built the same. Currently, research indicates that brands such as the Apple Watch and Garmin trackers are the most accurate when it comes to measuring resting heart rates, with products like the Fitbit often underestimating the true value.
To get the most accurate reading for each of these different methods, it is recommended that you take the average of multiple separate resting heart rate readings. Using a tracking journal, you can record your values every day, and take the average of your readings on a daily, weekly, or even monthly basis to see if there is a change in the trend of your heart rate. If you notice any inconsistencies in your readings, this information should be reported to our primary care provider for additional support.
Factors that can impact your resting heart rate
Like any other health measurement, there are many factors that can cause your resting heart rate to be higher than you may want. Depending on your personal situation and health, some common examples of factors that can impact your resting heart rate reading include:
- Age — As we age, we are at an increased risk of experiencing changes in the regularity and pace of our heart rate. This may contribute to higher than average resting blood pressure readings.
- Medical history and medications — Medical conditions and associated medications can also increase or decrease your resting heart rate. If you are living with other medical comorbidities and are having irregular resting heart rate measurements, be sure to talk to your primary care provider.
- Genetics — While more research in this field is needed to make a definitive connection between our genetics and heart rate, a new study found that the ability for our heart rate to recover after exercise (that is, to return to your resting heart rate) may have a genetic and hereditary component.
- Recent exercise or stress — When we exercise, the metabolic demands from the cells in our body increase. Because of this, a resting heart rate reading should not be taken within one to two hours of any kind of exercise, as the number will be falsely elevated.
- Time of day — After a long day of stress and activity, there is a good chance that your heart rate will be elevated above its baseline. Because of this, the American Heart Association recommends taking your resting heart rate reading in the morning before you even leave bed!
You can improve your resting heart rate over time
So, what happens if my resting heart rate is higher than I would like it to be? Thankfully, like other areas of our health, there are a variety of different lifestyle changes that you can make that will have a positive impact on your resting heart rate over time. Working with your primary care provider, some examples of lifestyle changes that you can make to lower your resting heart rate include:
- Participating in regular exercises, such as running, walking, or yoga
- Reducing your intake of stimulants like caffeine or nicotine from smoking cigarettes
- Eating a balanced and nutritious diet
- Increasing your daily intake of water
- Improving your sleep schedule
- Finding ways to manage chronic sources of stress
- Practicing deep breathing and meditation exercises
While not all of these options may be the best fit for your current lifestyle, making small positive adjustments to your daily habits can have a big impact on your resting heart rate over time. Through regular monitoring and recording, you will be able to watch your resting heart rate trend downward — which is a big win for your cardiovascular and overall health.
Putting it all together
Overall, it is clear that our resting heart rate plays a more significant role in our health than many of us may realize. Acting as the baseline for our cardiovascular system, having elevated resting heart rate readings is likely putting you at a greater risk for serious heart conditions — but that doesn’t mean there aren’t things you can do to reduce this risk.
As one of the most important indicators of your overall health, regular, accurate monitoring and recording of your resting heart rate can be a valuable tool in helping the numbers trend downwards. With plenty of different methods and devices available to help with recording your heart rate, we hope that this article helps motivate you to explore a variety of different ways to improve your resting heart rate and your overall health!