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What You Need to Know About Your Resting Heart Rate 

Taking care of your body is more important than ever, so be sure to always keep your finger on the pulse…

Chances are you keep track of some standard health stats – your height, weight, perhaps even your blood type. Others, from moles to metabolism, often get swept under the rug. When it comes to assessing current and future health risks, however, there’s one number that could be telling you more than you think.

What is your resting heart rate?

Your resting heart rate is exactly what it says on the tin - the number of times your heart beats per minute while you’re sitting still. It’s probably a number you don’t think about very often, but it’s up there with the most important numbers you should know, as not only can it be used to track fitness levels, it can also alert you to a variety of potential health issues.

What’s a normal resting heart rate?

“A ‘normal’ resting heart rate falls between 60 and 100 bpm, but it can vary from minute-to-minute, and what’s considered a normal pulse can vary from person-to-person,” explains Julie Ward, senior cardiac nurse at the British Heart Foundation. While a lower heart rate generally implies more efficient heart function and a better cardiovascular system (highly-conditioned athletes have an average bpm of 40 to 60), if you’re resting heart rate is at the higher end of the scale, it could mean you’re stressed, sleep-deprived or, more seriously, it could be the sign of a heart condition.

That doesn’t go to say you should ignore a rate below 50 either, especially if you’re experiencing symptoms of lightheadedness, as your heart might not be pumping enough oxygen-rich blood through the body. “If your resting heart rate is outside of this normal range, and it’s combined with shortness of breath, dizziness, fatigue, or you’re having palpitations, then there could be an underlying heart or circulatory problem,” says Julie.

What factors affect my resting heart rate?

Genetics and gender play a part – the average male heart rate is between 70 and 72 beats per minute while for females it lies between 78 and 82 – as does age, with resting heart rates unfortunately increasing as we get older.

Medication could also be to blame – studies show that medications to treat asthma, depression, obesity and ADHD tend to increase your heart rate, while those prescribed for hypertension and heart conditions have the opposite effect.

How do I measure my resting heart rate?

First things first, make sure you’re at rest, or haven’t exercised within the last hour or two. To be on the safe side, listen to the American Heart Association and measure your resting heart rate first thing in the morning, even before you get out of bed.

To measure your resting heart rate, check your pulse by placing your index and third fingers on your neck to the side of your windpipe. Alternatively, check your pulse at your wrist by placing your index and middle finger just below the thumb. Use a watch, or the timer on your phone, to count the number of beats for 30 seconds and double it to get your beats per minute. This is your resting heart rate. A heart rate monitor is another option, and can be found in most department stores, larger supermarkets and pharmacies.

How can I improve my resting heart rate?

Silhouette of woman making a heart shap with hands in front of a sunset

Worried about your resting heart rate? Luckily there’s a bunch of small lifestyle changes you can easily make that will help get it back inside the normal range stat.

Quit smoking

Ok, so this might not be quite so small a lifestyle change, but there’s no better way to reduce your resting heart rate than calling it quits on that addictive tobacco habit. “Quitting is the single best think you can do for your heart,” says Julie.

Exercise more

“Exercise is the key to boosting your overall heart health,” adds Julie. Regularly engaging in moderate aerobic activities such as brisk walking, biking or swimming will help your heart become more efficient at pumping blood, and you might even shed a few pounds at the same time – both of which work wonders for your resting heart rate. She suggests aiming for 150 minutes a week, breaking it down into short 10-minute sessions throughout the day if necessary.

Don’t binge drink

While there are a million reasons why binge drinking is a bad idea, be sure to think about your heart before knocking back that fifth glass of wine of the night. Tasty as it is, one study found that the more alcohol we drink, the higher our heart rate, which could lead to heart rhythm disorders in the long run.

Lower stress

Prolonged mental and emotional stress can cause your heart rate to creep up over time, potentially resulting in a higher risk of heart attacks, strokes and more. If you feel yourself getting worked up, try to add some relaxation into your day, whether its reading, meditating or going for a walk with friends.

If you’d like to discuss your heart rate with a cardiac nurse at the British Heart Foundation, please call its Heart Helpline which is open Monday to Friday between 9am and 5pm.

Written by Naomi Chadderton