The resting heart rate of an individual will vary depending on their age, body size, heart conditions and medication use, as well as the temperature of the air around them. Emotions can also affect one's heart rate; for example, getting excited or scared can increase the heart rate.
Getting fitter can lower one's heart rate, by making the heart muscles work more efficiently. A well-trained athlete may have a resting heart rate of 40 to 60 bpm, according to the American Heart Association (AHA). At the height of his career, cyclist Miguel Indurain reportedly had a resting heart rate of 28 bpm, according to Harvard Health. You can actually use some of the best fitness trackers to monitor your heart rate – although the accuracy on these vary.
"Your heart is a muscle and just like strengthening other muscles by doing activities, you can do the same thing with your heart," said Dr. Mary Ann Bauman, an internist at Integris Baptist Medical Center in Oklahoma City.
Tracking your heart rate can help you monitor your fitness level, and it may help you spot developing health problems if you are experiencing an unusually fast, slow, or irregular heartbeat. Learn about heart rate variability or read on to discover more about normal heart rates.
Blood pressure vs. heart rate
Some people confuse high blood pressure with high heart rate. Blood pressure is a measurement of the force of the blood against the walls of arteries, while heart rate is the number of times your heart beats per minute. You can measure your heart rate by taking your pulse, which reflects how often the arteries expand and contract in response to the heart beating, according to MedicalNewsToday; heart rate and pulse rate are equal to each other, so the terms are often used interchangeably.
There is no direct correlation between blood pressure and heart rate, so having high blood pressure, or hypertension, does not necessarily result in having a high pulse rate, and vice versa. Heart rate goes up during strenuous activity, but a vigorous workout may only modestly increase blood pressure.
How to measure heart rate
The easiest places to measure your heart rate, according to the AHA, are:
- inside of an elbow
- side of the neck
- top of the foot
For an accurate reading of your pulse rate, put two fingers over one of the areas listed above and count the number of beats in 60 seconds. You can also do this for 20 seconds and multiply by three, which may be easier, Bauman told Live Science. Note that using your thumb may be confusing because sometimes you can feel a pulse in the thumb, she said.
You can also use one of the best budget fitness trackers to get a reading, but the accuracy on these devices varies.
Resting heart rate
Your resting heart rate is the number of times your heart beats in a minute when you are calmly sitting or lying down. It’s best to measure your resting heart rate in the morning before you get out of bed, according to the AHA.
For adults 18 and older, a normal resting heart rate is between 60 and 100 bpm, depending on the person’s physical condition and age. For children ages 6 to 15, the normal resting heart rate is between 70 and 100 bpm, according to the AHA.
But having a heart rate lower than 60 bpm doesn’t necessarily mean you have a medical problem. Active people often have lower heart rates because their heart muscles don't need to work as hard to maintain a steady beat. Athletes and people who are very fit can have resting heart rates of 40 bpm or lower.
One's resting heart rate can also dip below 60 bpm as a result of taking certain medications. "Many medications people take — especially medication for blood pressure, such as the beta blockers — will lower your heart rate," Bauman said.
That said, if it's coupled with worrisome symptoms, a low heart rate may signal a problem. " A low heart rate in somebody who is having dizziness and lightheadedness may indicate that they have an abnormality that needs to be looked at," Bauman said. For example, bradycardia is a condition where the heart rate falls too low, typically under 60 bpm; this can be the result of problems with the sinoatrial node, which acts as the heart's pacemaker, or damage to the heart as a result of a heart attack or cardiovascular disease.
On the other end of the spectrum, a consistently high heart rate can put too much stress on the heart and other organs. If a person has a high heart rate at rest and is experiencing other symptoms, doctors may need to examine his or her heart function, Bauman said.
In general, a resting heart rate above 90 bpm is considered high, according to Harvard Health. In a 10-year study of more than 29,000 people, published in 2011 in The Journal of the American Medical Association, those whose heart rates rose from less than 70 bpm to more than 85 bpm over the course of the decade were 90% more likely to have died by the study's end, compared to those whose heart rates started and stayed below 70 bpm.
Maximum and target heart rate
Monitoring your heart rate during workout sessions can help you determine whether you are doing too much or not enough, the AHA says. When people exercise in their "target heart zone," they maximize the cardiovascular benefits of their workout; that's because, when your heart rate is in the target zone, "you are pushing the muscle to get stronger," Bauman said.
A person's target heart rate zone is between 50% and 85% of their maximum heart rate, according to the AHA. Most commonly, maximum heart rate is calculated by subtracting your age from 220. So for a 30-year-old person, for example, the maximum heart rate would be 190 bpm: 220 – 30 = 190.
The target zone for a 30-year-old person would therefore lie between 50 and 85% of 190:
- 50%: 190 x 0.50 = 95 bpm
- 85%: 190 x 0.85 = 162 bpm
For a 60-year-old person, the target zone would be between 80 and 136 bpm.
You can either manually calculate your heart rate during exercise or use heart rate monitors that wrap around the chest, or are included in sports watches. However, that's not to say that exercising without getting the heart rate up to the target zone has no benefit, Bauman said. It just doesn't challenge the heart to its fullest extent.
Related: Heart rate monitors: How they work
Lowering a rapid heart rate
Heart rates can spike due to nervousness, stress, dehydration and overexertion. Sitting down, taking slow, deep breaths and rehydrating can help lower your heart rate in these instances.
In the long-term, maintaining a regular exercise schedule can help to lower — and then maintain — your resting heart rate over time. Smoking cigarettes raises the heart rate, in part due to nicotine's effects on the circulatory system’s blood vessels, so quitting smoking can also help lower one's heart rate to a healthy range, according to Harvard Health.
To lower your heart rate in a healthy way after exercise, the AHA and Mayo Clinic recommend that you "cool down" by continuing to move for about 5 to 10 minutes, but at a slower pace and reduced intensity compared with the rest of your workout. For instance, Mayo suggests the following cool down activities:
- To cool down after a brisk walk, walk slowly for five to 10 minutes.
- To cool down after a run, walk briskly for five to 10 minutes.
- To cool down after swimming, swim laps leisurely for five to 10 minutes.
Cooling down after a workout helps gradually bring your heart rate down to pre-exercise levels, thus helping you avoid potential feelings of dizziness or nausea that can occur when the heart rate falls too rapidly. It's unclear whether including a cool down in your workout helps to prevent muscle stiffness or soreness after exercise, but more research is needed in this area, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Arrhythmia, tachycardia and other conditions
A number of conditions can affect your heart rate. In general, an "arrhythmia" describes a heart rate that's too fast, too slow or irregular.
While bradycardia describes when the heart rate is too low, tachycardia describes when one's heart rate is too high, which generally means the resting heart rate exceeds 100 bpm, according to the National Institutes of Health. This generally occurs when electrical signals in the heart's upper chambers fire abnormally.
If the heart rate is closer to 150 bpm or higher, it is a condition known as supraventricular tachycardia (SVT). In SVT, the electrical system that controls heart rate becomes dysfunctional. This generally requires medical attention.
- Watch "What is a Heart Health Check?" from the Heart Foundation
- Read about "3 Kinds of Exercise That Boost Heart Health" from Johns Hopkins Medicine
- Learn "How to Feel Your Heart Beat" with SciShow Kids
Editor's note: This article was last updated on Dec. 13, 2021.
Additional reporting by Kim Ann Zimmermann, Live Science contributor.
Originally published on Live Science.
Live Science newsletter
Stay up to date on the latest science news by signing up for our Essentials newsletter.