Your resting heart rate is like Morse code for your health

“That’s all right, Mr Ryan. My Morse is so rusty, I could be sending him dimensions on Playmate of the Month.”

 

Captain Bart Mancuso, explaining to Jack Ryan why the message he just sent Captain Ramius is just as risky as Ryan’s guess about the Red October’s next turn.

The Hunt for Red October (1990)

Do you track your resting heart rate?

Because tracking your heart rate during workouts is only half of your due diligence.

The other half is knowing how many times your heart beats per minute when you’re at complete rest.

Think of it as your heart’s idle speed, much like the RPM gauge on your car’s dashboard when you’re stopped at a red light.

What does resting heart rate signify?

“Listen to your heart…”

 

Listen To Your Heart
Roxette
Album: Look Sharp! (1988)

How hard your heart is or isn’t working when you’re at complete rest is a window into your cardiovascular fitness and overall health.

A lower resting heart rate often indicates more efficient heart function and better cardiovascular fitness. A higher rate may point to underlying issues or cardiovascular unfitness.

Your doctor can help bring perspective.

How do you measure your resting heart rate?

“Take it easy, take it easy…”

 

Take It Easy
Eagles
Album: Eagles (1972)

There are plenty of tech-savvy options in smartwatches and fitness trackers. Or, for a zero-cost alternative, you need only to be able to count to sixty: Find your pulse, then count the beats for 60 seconds.

This sounds obvious, but it’s worth saying:  It’s important you’re at rest when you take your resting heart rate.

Taking your pulse at a random moment after even low-intensity activity–like walking back to your desk or from room to room–can skew your results. Smartwatch and fitness tracker owners know this, as their device captures their heart rates 24/7.

A lot of people don’t rest before they take their resting heart rate.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends sitting quietly for five minutes before taking your blood pressure, and those devices also take your pulse.

Your heart rate can vary with each passing second, so consider taking three readings at a time, one to two minutes apart, for better data.

Which factors affect your resting heart rate?

The better question may be, which factors don’t?

Your heart responds to your current physical and emotional state as well as stimuli from your environment.

Major factors include your:

  • Fitness level. Athletes tend to have lower resting heart rates.
  • Age. It generally increases with age.
  • Emotions: Stress and anxiety can increase it.
  • Medications: Some drugs can raise or lower it.
  • Temperature: Extreme heat or cold can increase it.

Think of your heart as your body’s engine. The better you maintain a vehicle’s engine, the longer it can last. The greater the stress you subject it to, the likelier it is to break down.

That’s why you want to…

Monitor your resting heart rate

Identify concerning trends

Monitoring your resting heart with consistency can help you identify concerning trends about potential health issues and measure your progress.

You know stress is the silent killer. And If you’re like most people, you’re accustomed to some degree of stress in your life.

Where it gets treacherous is, some symptoms can be harder to notice, or you might underestimate their significance.

Monitoring gives you the data necessary to pinpoint potential problems and determine when they began.

Progress toward goals

Monitoring gives you concrete, quantitative evidence you’re making progress toward your fitness goals.

Don’t just “think” you’re getting fitter. Let the results prove it.

Interpret your resting heart rate

“…The doctors managed to reset her jaw, more or less. Save one of her eyes. His pulse never got above 85…”

 

Doctor Chilton, sharing a cautionary tale with Clarice about Hannibal Lector’s attack on a nurse.
SIlence of the Lambs (1991)

The widely published guidelines are so broad I question their usefulness.

For instance, while published charts consider 60-100 bpm normal for adults, I’d be making a doctor’s appointment if my resting heart rate approached the upper end of the scale.

Consistent monitoring will give you a more accurate baseline and better context for what’s normal for you and what might be cause for further evaluation.

Improve your resting heart rate

You know this drill, so I’ll be brief:

  • Exercise: Exercise is the drug that’s free to everyone.
  • Nutrition: Healthy diet, happy heart. The healthcare community recognizes the Mediterranean diet as heart healthy, though that’s not the only path to heart health.
  • Stress management: Get consistent about relaxation, meditation, yoga, or whatever brings calm to your day.
  • The sleep factor: We’ve talked about sleep’s benefits. Consider your heart another benefactor.
  • Avoid tobacco and excessive alcohol: They’re poisonous to your body. Nobody likes to hear that about alcohol, in particular–I know I don’t–but I’m keeping it real, here.

Be smart for your heart

Your resting heart rate is your body’s way of sharing health feedback. We love to encourage people to follow their hearts when making decisions, but sometimes using your head is the smart play.

Science can seem counterintuitive. Work with your doctor to be sure you’re on track. It’ll help you be proactive where you can and responsive where you must.

That’s a year-round valentine to your heart.

Take care.

Resources

https://www.cdc.gov/bloodpressure/measure.htm

https://cpr.heart.org/en/health-topics/high-blood-pressure/the-facts-about-high-blood-pressure/all-about-heart-rate-pulse

https://cpr.heart.org/en/healthy-living/fitness/fitness-basics/target-heart-rates

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