Harvard Health Publications

Increase in resting heart rate is a signal worth watching

Posted By Howard LeWine, M.D. On December 21, 2011

When you sit quietly, your heart slips into the slower, steady pace known as your resting heart rate. A new study suggests that an increase in this rate over time may be a signal of heart trouble ahead.

Your heart rate changes from minute to minute. It depends on whether you are standing up or lying down, moving around or sitting still, stressed or relaxed. Your resting heart rate, though, tends to be stable from day to day. The usual range for resting heart rate is anywhere between 60 and 90 beats per minute. Above 90 is considered high.

Many factors influence resting heart rate. Genes play a role. Aging tends to speed it up. Regular exercise tends to slow it down. (In his prime, champion cyclist Lance Armstrong had a resting heart rate of just 32 beats per minute.) Stress, medications, and medical conditions also influence the heart rate.

In today’s Journal of the American Medical Association, researchers from Norway report the results of a large study looking at changes in resting heart rate over 10 years. They recruited more than 29,000 people without any history or heart disease, high blood pressure, or any other type of cardiovascular disorder, and measured their resting heart rates when they started the study and again 10 years later.

Compared to people whose resting heart rates were under 70 beats per minute at the study’s start and its end, those whose resting heart rate rose from under 70 to more than 85 were 90% more likely to have died during the course of the study. The increase in risk was slightly less for those with resting heart rates of 70 to 85 at the study’s start and who had a greater than 85 at the study’s end.

Although 90% sounds like a huge and scary increase, let me put it in perspective. Among the group whose heart rates stayed under 70 throughout the study, there were 8.2 deaths per 10,000 people per year. Among those whose heart rates rose above 85, there were 17.2 deaths per 10,000 people per year.

The results also suggested that lowering your heart rate over time may be beneficial, but the researchers could not say that for certain.

What this means for you

You don’t need a doctor’s visit to keep track of your resting heart rate. The best time to measure it is before you get out of bed in the morning. You can measure your heart rate at your wrist or neck by placing one or two fingers over a pulse point, counting the number of beats in 15 seconds, and multiplying by four.

You can slow your resting heart rate by doing things that are also well known to help maintain a healthy heart:

Exercise more. When you take a brisk walk, swim, or bicycle, your heart beats faster during the activity and for a short time afterward. But exercising every day gradually slows the resting heart rate.

Reduce stress. Performing the relaxation response, meditation, tai chi, and other stress-busting techniques lowers the heart rate over time.

Avoid tobacco products. Smokers have higher resting heart rates. Quitting brings it back down.

Lose weight if necessary. The larger the body, the more the heart must work to supply it with blood. Losing weight can help slow an elevated heart rate.

Related Information: Healthy Eating for a Healthy Heart

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