Heart Rate: Understanding the Most Vital Health Metric

Heart rate is an important indicator of overall well-being. When your heart is functioning correctly, you’ll be able to engage in regular exercise and live an energized life. In contrast, having a high heart rate can increase your risk of cardiovascular disease and make it harder to engage in everyday activities.

“It’s easy to understand this biometric,” says Dr. Willem Gielen, Cardiologist and Chief Medical Officer at Biostrap. “It’s something that you can discuss with your physician, and it’s our fastest elemental biometric.”

So what’s an average resting heart rate, and how can you change this vital metric? While each person has different factors influencing their heart rate, learning a few calculations can help you determine where your heart rate is — and where it needs to be. Read on to learn everything you need to know about heart rate, heart rate zones, and how to use this metric to live a long and healthy life.

What Is a Normal Heart Rate?

Resting heart rate (RHR) is the number of times your heart beats per minute. A normal heart rate is usually between 60-80 beats per minute (BPM), according to the American Heart Association.

Measuring your heart rate is a simple process, but chances are it will fluctuate throughout the day due to various internal and external factors. For this reason, you must determine your average resting heart rate at the optimal time of the day.

“The most important time to measure your heart rate is during the night,” says Gielen. Measuring your heart rate during this time will determine what your resting heart rate is without influence from external factors, changes in your environment, or physical activity.

According to Gielen, establishing your resting heart rate can also confirm whether or not your body’s systems are operating in harmony. “If you’re used to having a resting heart rate around 50 bpm at night, but you’re stressed, then you can see that your heart rate won’t come down.” Determining your average resting heart rate will allow you to quickly understand when emotional or external factors are negatively impacting your heart rate.

How to Measure Heart Rate

There are numerous methods, both simple and complex, that allow you to measure your heart rate. “You can use your fingers, a pulse oximeter, a blood pressure monitor, and more,” says Gielen. Heart rate monitors are a great way to measure heart rate, meet your target heart rate zones, and achieve a healthier cardiovascular system. Biostrap has a biometric wrist-worn device and a heart rate monitor that help you track and improve your recovery and overall wellness.

“You can positively use wearables like Biostrap,” notes Gielen, “These allow you to measure heart rate over extended time intervals, so you can see how trends develop. This equips you with more knowledge about how your body is performing and recovering, so you can see which lifestyle changes are benefiting your heart rate and improving your overall health.”

What Is a Good Resting Heart Rate?

For measuring heart rate, find your pulse rate on your wrists, inside of the elbow, side of the neck, or the top of your foot. Then, place your index and middle finger over this area and count the number of beats for one minute.

A good resting heart rate will vary depending on the factors discussed above. A 2017 study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology looked at heart rate and found the optimal resting heart rate to be 67 beats per minute. This conclusion was drawn because data suggests a resting heart rate frequency below 60 bpm may lead to atrial fibrillation, while a resting heart rate above 70 bpm may lead to heart disease. Keep in mind, however, that this optimal number will vary slightly in everyone.

Moreover, it is also essential to be aware of certain red flags — having a resting heart rate between 80 and 100 may increase your risk of cardiovascular disease. “The higher pulse leads to a higher risk of disease,” says Gielen. “It comes with a higher morbidity and mortality.”

A 16-year study on heart health found that every time the resting heart rate increased by 10 beats per minute, the risk of mortality increased by 16%. If you are in this elevated heart rate range, it might be time for an intervention that can help lower your RHR.

What Are Heart Rate Zones?

Heart rate: An athlete runs up a flight of stairs

Heart rate zones can help you understand and improve the effectiveness of your workouts. In turn, heart rate zones can be leveraged to help you lose weight, advance fitness goals, improve heart health, and increase cardiovascular fitness. “Heart rate zones are more like exercise zones,” Gielen notes.

Heart rate zones (HR zones) are organized into five main stages ranging from light intensity to maximum intensity. Different biological processes will take place in each one, with each defined by a certain percentage relative to your resting and maximum heart rate (MHR), which is the maximum amount that your heart can beat during intense exercise. The difference between an individual’s resting heart rate (RHR) and maximum heart rate (MHR) is referred to as Heart Rate Reserve (HRR).

HRR = MHR – RHR

In other words, your max heart rate is the most your heart muscle can handle. There are two primary ways you can calculate your maximum heart rate. As explained by the Mayo Clinic, the simplest way to calculate your heart rate zones is by subtracting your age from the number 220. For example, a 30-year old would have a maximum heart rate of 190.

While the formula (220 – age) has been used to calculate maximum heart rate for decades, it’s recently been set aside for a more accurate equation. “When you age, your heart rate doesn’t go down at the same rate as you would expect from the formula.”, says Gielen. “That’s why you have to correct it and use 208 – (0.7 × age). This is an easy way to determine how your heart rate should change in the related zones.”

Once you have your maximum heart rate and calculate your heart rate reserve, you can determine your target heart rate zones. Here are the percentages to follow.

Zone 1: Very Light Intensity, RHR + 50-60% HRR

Walking is an example of a very light-intensity exercise. It’s just enough to get your muscles moving but isn’t enough to break a sweat or stimulate lactic acid release.

Zone 2: Light Intensity, RHR + 60-70% HRR

Anyone wanting to boost weight loss and lose fat will want to get to at least Zone 2. While it won’t cause shortness of breath right away, consistent exercise at this rate will help build muscle and burn fat.

Zone 3: Moderate Intensity, RHR + 70-80% HRR

Zone 3 is where things start to get harder and you’re not able to maintain a conversation during a workout. Imagine you’ve just amped up the speed on a treadmill from a walk to a jog. Blood circulation in the heart and muscles increases, soreness builds, and lactic acid accumulates.

Zone 4: High Intensity, RHR + 80-90% HRR

Zone 4 intensity is the second-to-last heart rate level, characterized by sweating, heavy breathing, and an increased need for fuel in the form of oxygen. High-intensity interval training (HIIT) workouts aim to reach this point throughout the workout.

Zone 5: Maximum Intensity, RHR + 90-100% HRR

Zone 5 is the fastest and most intense portion of your workout, marked by increasingly accumulated lactic acid. Elite athletes can stay here for a minute or two, but most people can only stay in this zone for around 30 seconds.

Which heart rate zone you aim for depends on your goals. Staying in Zone 2 for a half an hour is a great place to start when you’re working to build endurance and lose weight. Once that becomes easy, you can add in the time spent in Zone 3, and so on, gradually increasing your exercise intensity as you become more fit.

What Influences Resting Heart Rate?

Heart rate: A woman does breathing exercises in nature

Heart rate is influenced by a number of factors, including age, weight, and physical activity levels. Specifically, people engaging in more physical activity typically have a lower heart rate because their heart muscle is stronger, and it doesn’t have to work as hard to pump the same amount of blood around the body.

Additionally, heart conditions can affect a person’s heart and influence how fast a person’s heart beats. “How well trained you are, how stressed you are, if you’re suffering from disease or infection, if you’re on medication — all these factors can change your heart rate,” says Gielen.

For example, an arrhythmia is when a person’s heart doesn’t beat at a normal rate. There are three major types of arrhythmias: bradycardia, tachycardia, and atrial fibrillation. Bradycardia is when the heart beats more slowly than normal, and tachycardia is when it beats faster than normal. Atrial fibrillation is when the heart beats at an irregular pace and faster than normal.

People who have atrial fibrillation or another kind of arrhythmia can suffer from having palpitations, dizziness, and shortness of breath. These symptoms are likely intensified by physical exercise, which puts extra stress on the heart. Those suffering from the symptoms of atrial fibrillation or arrhythmia should seek medical help to diagnose and understand the issue.
Sometimes, treatments such as dietary changes and exercise can be recommended to positively alter the heart rate.

Since we’re all different, our heart rate can vary from person to person based on these factors.

How to Lower Resting Heart Rate

When you have a high heart rate at rest, there are a few things you can do to lower it. For example, engaging in more physical activity and increasing exercise intensity will help to improve the heart muscle so that it doesn’t beat as fast.

If you are following a new workout routine, make sure to warm up each time and push yourself to higher heart rate zones only at a gradual pace to give your body enough time to adapt. In time, this training will lower your resting heart rate, which is an important marker for your physical health. “The lower the heart rate is, the healthier the physical health is,” says Gielen. “This is the equilibrium between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system and how well the heart will adapt.”

Losing weight can also help lower your resting heart rate. Since carrying extra weight causes your heart to work harder to perform normal functions, being overweight results in a faster heart rate. Thus, even minimal weight loss can lower the heart rate and improve heart health while avoiding potential heart failure.

Practicing mindfulness, meditation, and breathing exercises is a good way to temporarily slow your heart rate. Just inhaling and exhaling slowly for a count of ten breaths can lower your heart rate and calm the nervous system to institute a sense of calm throughout the body.

This practice also helps to de-stress the body and help to cope with anxieties, but Gielen recommends keeping this in perspective. At the end of the day, only physical exercise will reduce the heart rate over longer periods of time. “Cardio training and training zones are the healthiest types of activities to lower the heart rate”, says Gielen. “It’s a healthy form of training where you speed up your pulse, then rest, and then speed it up again.”

Why Heart Rate Matters

A man using Biostrap to measure heart rate

Since your heart is so vital, it’s no surprise that heart rate is such an important metric. Other than helping you get more exercise and lose weight, heart rate is also related to overall health. A higher heart rate can lead to high blood pressure, heart disease, and other heart and health problems.

Although high heart rate does not necessarily mean high blood pressure, people with an over-average heart rate do appear to have high blood pressure due to lifestyle factors such as being overweight or out of shape. In addition, people with elevated blood pressure appear to have a higher risk of sickness and disease.

“It may be disease-related, it may be stress-related, but if your basic heart rate is higher than you would prefer, you will first and foremost have to work on your physical health,” Gielen warns.

People with heart diseases may need to take beta-blockers which lower their heart rate and reduce blood pressure, thus lowering the risk of further cardiovascular conditions. Be sure to speak to your doctor about the necessary steps to lower your heart rate.

Understanding Heart Rate for a Healthy Heart

Heart rate is a key indicator of health. Whether you’re looking to boost your aerobic training routine or would like to lose weight, understanding your resting heart rate and target heart rate zones will give you greater insight into where your health stands — and how you can improve.

Tracking your heart rate is critical because it sheds light on what you can do to improve your health.  “Of all these biometrics that we’re measuring today,” says Gielen, “good old heart rate is still the most important one to see what’s going on in the body. Heart rate is the fast responder when something is changing.”

Having a high heart rate, for example, can increase your risk of health problems, including cardiovascular disease. Using heart rate monitoring tools can guide you towards lowering your heart rate and strengthening your heart muscle, so you can spend less time worrying and more time enjoying your life.

 

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