The heart is a muscle. It pushes blood through the arteries, causing them to expand and contract in response to the flow of blood. You can feel the expansions and contractions, your pulse or heartbeat, in many places throughout the body where an artery passes close to the skin. Taking your pulse — measuring how many times the heart beats in a minute — helps make you aware of your heart rhythm and the strength of your heartbeat.
For most people, heart rate and pulse rate are the same. However, the two are technically different: Heart rate measures the rate of contractions of the heart, while pulse rate measures the rate at which blood pressure increases throughout the body. In individuals with specific heart conditions that prevent the heart from pumping blood efficiently with each contraction, the pulse rate can be lower than the heart rate. But that is an exception.
Types of pulses
The best places to take your pulse are at your wrist, inside the elbow, at the side of your neck or on the top of your foot, according to The American Heart Association. You can also take your pulse at your groin, on your temple or behind your knees.
The pulse felt on the neck is called the carotid pulse. When felt on the groin, it is called the femoral pulse. The pulse at your wrist is called the radial pulse. The pedal pulse is on the foot, and the brachial pulse is under the elbow.
The apical pulse is the pulse over the top of the heart, as typically heard through a stethoscope with the patient lying on his or her left side. The heartbeat consists of two distinct sounds — often referred to as "lub-dub" — and each lub-dub counts as a beat. The normal apical pulse rate of an adult is 60 to 100 beats.
Short of performing an electrocardiogram, doctors find that taking the apical pulse is the most accurate, noninvasive way of assessing cardiac health. The apical pulse provides information on count, rhythm, strength and quality of the heart.
Taking your pulse
Taking your pulse is easy, especially if you do it at your wrist or neck. Simply lay your index and third fingers on the inside of your wrist below the base of your thumb, between the bone and the tendon. This spot is over the radial artery. When you feel the thump of your pulse, count the beats for 15 seconds. Multiply the count by four to calculate the number of beats per minute.
To take your pulse at your neck, do the same thing but lay your index and third fingers on the neck in the hollow beside your Adam's apple or windpipe.
What is an average pulse rate?
A normal resting heart rate for adults ranges from 60 to 100 beats per minute (bpm), according to The Mayo Clinic. Women tend to have a slightly higher heart rate than men; the average resting heart rate in women is in the mid-70s, while it is only about 70 in men. This is primarily due to the fact that the male heart muscle is stronger.
Other factors can affect resting heart rate, too, including age, body size, fitness level, heart conditions, whether you're sitting or standing, medication, emotions, and even air temperature.
Generally, people with good cardiovascular fitness, such as athletes, experience a lower resting heart rate, sometimes 40 or below. [Related: New Heart Rate Trackers: Is Knowing Your Pulse Useful?]
The following are healthy pulse rate guidelines recommended by The National Institutes of Health:
- Newborns up to 1 month old: 70 to 190 bpm
- Infants 1 to 11 months old: 80 to 160 bpm
- Children 1 to 2 years old: 80 to 130 bpm
- Children 3 to 4 years old: 80 to 120 bpm
- Children 5 to 6 years old: 75 to 115 bpm
- Children 7 to 9 years old: 70 to 110 bpm
- Children 10 years and older, and adults (including seniors): 60 to 100 bpm
- Well-trained athletes: 40 to 60 bpm
- John Hopkins Medicine: Vital Signs
- Mayo Clinic: Resting Heart Rate
- American Heart Association: All About Heart Rate (Pulse)
Jessie Szalay contributed to this article.
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Kim Ann Zimmermann is a contributor to Live Science and sister site Space.com, writing mainly evergreen reference articles that provide background on myriad scientific topics, from astronauts to climate, and from culture to medicine. Her work can also be found in Business News Daily and KM World. She holds a bachelor’s degree in communications from Glassboro State College (now known as Rowan University) in New Jersey.