Exercise and Wellness

Understanding Your Heart Rates

A man checks his heart rate on his smart watch.

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Your heart beats continually to keep you alive, and it can be slower or faster depending on your age and what you’re doing at the time. Although you don’t likely think much about it, understanding your heart rates can help you stay more in tune with your heart health, as well as provide valuable feedback during exercise sessions.

What Is Heart Rate?

Your heart is a muscle that contracts to pump blood throughout your body. Heart rate, or pulse, is the number of times your heart beats in one minute. It’s measured in beats per minute, or BPM.

Normal heart rates vary among individuals. Knowing yours can help you notice a significant change, potential heart condition or health issue.

Measuring Your Heart Rate

It’s easy to measure your heart rate, and you don’t need any equipment. Simply take your index finger and your middle finger and press against the radial artery (on the thumb side of your wrist) or the carotid artery (on the side of your neck).

When you press against the skin, you should feel your pulse. If you don’t, reposition your fingers or press a bit harder. Then count the number of pulses for one minute to find your heart rate. This is the most accurate method.

You can also count for 30 seconds and multiply the number by two to get your BPM or wear a heart rate monitor, fitness tracking device or smartwatch that measures your heart rate for you.

Resting Heart Rate

There are a few types of heart rates. Your resting heart rate (RHR) is the number of times your heart beats in one minute while you’re resting, sitting still and calm.

RHR varies according to age, but it’s typically higher in young children and lower in adults:

  • Newborn: 100-205 BPM
  • Young child (1-5 years): 80-140 BPM
  • School-age (5-12 years) 75-118 BPM
  • Teens and adults: 60-100 BPM

Adults who are very physically active and fit may have a RHR lower than 60 BPM because their heart muscle is so strong. Some medicines, like beta blockers for high blood pressure, also decrease your RHR. A resting heart rate below 60 BPM is called bradycardia.

At the opposite end, a resting heart rate higher than 100 BPM is tachycardia — and an irregular heart rhythm, or arrhythmia, may be to blame.

An elevated RHR can also be caused by other factors, including:

  • Anxiety and stress
  • Dehydration
  • Excess caffeine
  • Fever
  • High heat and humidity
  • Infection
  • Pain
  • Thyroid disorders

Maximum Heart Rate and Target Heart Rate

Your maximum heart rate (MHR), which is calculated by subtracting your age from 220, is the upper limit of how your heart can perform during physical activity. For example, if you’re 40 years old, your MHR is 180 BPM (220-40=180). Keep in mind, however, that this is an estimate and that it’s possible your heart rate exceeds this number.

Challenging the heart muscle with exercise makes it stronger. Your target heart rate (THR) is an ideal range to maintain during exercise and is a measure of how hard you’re working. THR is a percentage of your MHR, and it varies based on the intensity of your exercise.

Let’s use our 40-year-old whose MHR is 180 BPM (220-40) as an example.

Low intensity: 108 to 126 BPM

THR = ;60 to 70% of MHR

180 x .6 = 108 bpm to 180 x .7 = 126 BPM

Moderate intensity: 126 to 144 BPM

THR = 70 to 80% of MHR

180 x .7 = 126 bpm to 180 x .8 = 144 BPM

High intensity: 144 to 162 BPM

THR = 80 to 90% of MHR

180 x .8 = 144 bpm to 180 x .90 = 162 BPM

If you’re a regular exerciser, your THR should be between 70-85% of your MHR, depending on the activity. During a slow yoga session, for instance, your heart rate is likely to be lower than when sprinting on a treadmill.

Some cardio machines, like treadmills and ellipticals, have sensors that measure your heart rate. But since these can be inaccurate, you may want to wear your own device instead.

Remember that heart rate is only one guide to how hard your body is working. Pay attention to how you’re feeling as well, and stop if you’re very uncomfortable or in pain. Be sure to talk to your doctor before beginning an exercise routine.

When to Call Your Doctor

Although people experience heart rate variability, if your pulse is continually very low or very high, it may be a sign of a health issue.

Call your doctor if you’re experiencing:

  • Dizziness
  • Fainting
  • RHR that is consistently very fast or very slow
  • Heart palpitations (feelings of a fast-beating, fluttering or pounding heart)
  • Heartbeat that skips or has a vibrating sensation

Our team at AdventHealth can help you understand and monitor your heart rate and heart health. Contact us to learn more.

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