By Mattie Schuler
If your cardio workouts are genuinely challenging and you want to determine their impact on your overall health, a good place to look for hard evidence is your heart. Exercise positively affects cardiac muscle, and your resting heart rate can be a good yardstick for how effective your exercise is on just about every level — from improving aerobic fitness to improving overall health.
But what is a healthy resting heart rate? And how can you improve it? To truly know if you're working your heart and body as best you can, you first have to understand what makes it tick.
What Is Resting Heart Rate?
Your resting heart rate (or pulse rate) represents the number of times your heart beats per minute (BPM) at rest. Just as monitoring your body fat percentage can help you track your weight loss success, measuring your resting heart rate can help gauge your overall cardiovascular health.
What Is a Healthy Resting Heart Rate for My Age?
For adults over the age of 18, a healthy resting heart rate is generally considered one that falls between 60 and 100 bpm, says Dr. Mehdi Razavi, director of Texas Heart Institute's Electrophysiology Clinical Research and Innovations Department.
For elite athletes, the healthy range for a resting heart rate is lower — between 40 and 70 bpm.
Is a resting heart rate of 80 "good?"
Some studies show adverse implications for cardiovascular health starting around 75 bpm, so while a resting heart rate of 80 might fall within the acceptable range, it may not qualify as "good."
What is a "bad" resting heart rate?
Anything above 100 bpm will earn you the medical distinction of tachycardia, which is cause for cardiovascular concern.
What is considered a dangerously low heart rate?
The American Heart Association designates 60 bpm as the threshold for bradycardia, which is considered slower than normal. But, obviously, trained athletes may fall into this range, so whether or not it's dangerous is specific to the individual. Anyone concerned about their heart rate should consult a physician.
How to Take Your Resting Heart Rate
The best time to check your resting pulse is when you're relaxed, so do it before you perform any sort of strenuous activity or wait for at least two hours afterward. First thing in the morning — before you've had caffeine — is typically a good time in that regard. So is right before you go to sleep, says Dr. Razavi, who recommends taking your resting heart rate once a day, so you can compare readings for the most accurate number.
Most fitness trackers or wearables can provide accurate heart rate figures, as do blood pressure cuffs, says Dr. Razavi. If you don't have a heart rate monitor, follow these steps to check your pulse:
- Begin by sitting calmly and relaxed. Eliminate as many distractions as possible.
- Place the tips of your index and middle fingers on the artery located in your wrist or beside your windpipe, and count the number of beats for 15 seconds.
- Multiply that number by four to estimate your beats per minute.
Factors Affecting Resting Heart Rate
Besides fitness level, an abnormal resting heart rate can be attributed to a variety of factors, like emotions, medication, dehydration, and even altitude, Dr. Razavi says.
At higher temperatures, your body increases blood flow to the skin in order to regulate its internal temperature, forcing your heart to work harder in the process.
Similarly, if you're dehydrated, your heart has to put in extra effort. Without adequate hydration, the amount of plasma in the blood decreases, making it "thicker" and forcing your heart to beat faster to deliver sufficient oxygen and nutrients throughout your body.
For those at the upper elevations (generally above 2,000 feet), a period of acclimation is required before the heart adapts to the attendant decrease in oxygen. Until it does, your heart rate will likely remain elevated to compensate for the lower oxygen levels. So maybe skip taking heart rate readings while vacationing in Aspen.
The pose you strike while checking your pulse can also yield a skewed reading. When you're lying down, the effect of gravity on your body is minimized, allowing blood to flow more easily and your heart to beat less often. Sitting is the recommended (and most accurate) position for taking your resting heart rate, but the most important thing is to be consistent, so choose a position and stick with it.
When you're stressed (or even happy or sad), your body reacts by elevating your heart rate, blood pressure, ventilation (breathing) rate, and adrenaline levels. This is why it's important to clear any distractions — especially those that are emotional triggers — prior to taking a reading.
Beta blockers, commonly used by heart attack survivors or those who have high blood pressure or arrhythmia, are prescribed for the regulation of heart rhythm, and may slow your pulse. Conversely, some medications can quicken your heart rate, including decongestants and appetite suppressants.
In addition to the above, "drinking alcohol or caffeine will cause [heart rate] to increase," Dr. Razavi says. "Another factor that can result in an increase is an elevated body core temperature, such as a fever."
How to Improve Your Resting Heart Rate
Your heart is a muscle, not unlike your quads, biceps, and abs. And just as you can train those muscles to improve their strength, so too can you train your heart to improve its function.
"Like every other muscle in your body, your heart will adapt to the physical stress of exercise by becoming stronger, allowing it to pump more blood with each beat," says Trevor Thieme, C.S.C.S., senior fitness and nutrition content manager for Openfit. That, in turn, can lower your resting heart rate. "Both aerobic and anaerobic exercises can strengthen the heart, but aerobic exercise has the edge when it comes to lowering your resting heart rate, because such exercise typically keeps your heart working hard for longer."
Technically speaking, aerobic exercise is any activity for which the body uses oxygen to produce energy (anaerobic exercise, by comparison, doesn't require oxygen for energy production). But when it comes to strengthening the heart, the best aerobic exercises are those vigorous enough to really challenge it. "Think running versus jogging or walking," says Thieme.
Research shows that high-intensity interval training (HIIT) can also have a strong effect on resting heart rate, as it taxes both the aerobic and anaerobic energy systems. "But you'll see the greatest effect by keeping your heart rate below about 85 percent of your maximum while exercising," says Thieme. "Other ways to lower it are reducing your stress level and improving the quantity and quality of your sleep."
Heart Rate Zones
There are five exercise heart rate zones, which correspond to effort levels ranging from very light to maximum. "Heart rate is also associated closely with breathing rate, so monitoring the latter (in the form of the "talk test") is the easiest way to tell what heart rate zone you're in," says Thieme.
Zone 1 – Very light Effort
This zone corresponds to a heart rate that's 50 to 60 percent of maximum. Talking is easy, and there's no noticeable increase in your breathing rate.
Zone 2 – Light Effort
Your heart rate is slightly higher (60 to 70 percent of maximum) in zone two. You can still talk comfortably, but your breathing becomes heavier.
Zone 3 – Moderate Effort
You can hold a conversation, but only with effort thanks to how hard you're breathing. Your heart will also be beating harder and faster — between 70 and 80 percent of maximum. This is the sweet spot for lowering your resting heart rate.
Zone 4 – Hard Effort
Your heart rate is now between 80 and 90 percent of your maximum. You can talk, but you'd prefer not to, especially if it means talking in more than simple sentences (or even single words). Anything that impedes breathing is rapidly losing importance. Once your heart rate goes above 85 percent of your max, exercise becomes anaerobic.
Zone 5 – Maximum Effort
In this zone, you're exerting yourself at 90 to 100 percent of your maximum heart rate. "Talking is out of the question," says Thieme, "as your heart and lungs are now working at full capacity with a single purpose: to drive as much oxygen into your bloodstream and to your muscles as possible, as quickly as possible."