Your resting heart rate can reflect your current — and future — health

Matthew Solan
Matthew Solan, Executive Editor, Harvard Men's Health Watch

One of the easiest, and maybe most effective, ways to gauge your health can be done in 30 seconds with two fingers. Measuring your resting heart rate (RHR) — the number of heart beats per minute while you’re at rest — is a real-time snapshot of how your heart muscle is functioning.

It’s easy to do. Place your index and middle finger on your wrist just below the thumb, or along either side of your neck, so you can feel your pulse. Use a watch to count the number of beats for 30 seconds and double it to get your beats per minute. Repeat a few times to ensure an accurate reading. An RHR between 60 and 100 beats per minute is considered normal for adults.

All in the numbers

Your RHR, when considered in the context of other markers, such as blood pressure and cholesterol, can help identify potential health problems as well as gauge your current heart health.

“In certain cases, a lower RHR can mean a higher degree of physical fitness, which is associated with reduced rates of cardiac events like heart attacks,” says Dr. Jason Wasfy, director of quality and analytics at Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital Heart Center. “However, a high RHR could be a sign of an increased risk of cardiac risk in some situations, as the more beats your heart has to take eventually takes a toll on its overall function.”

In fact, research has found that a RHR near the top of the 60 to 100 range can increase your risk for cardiovascular disease and even early death.

For example, a 2013 study in the journal Heart tracked the cardiovascular health of about 3,000 men for 16 years and found that a high RHR was linked with lower physical fitness and higher blood pressure, body weight, and levels of circulating blood fats. The researchers also discovered that the higher a person’s RHR, the greater the risk of premature death. Specifically, an RHR between 81 and 90 doubled the chance of death, while an RHR higher than 90 tripled it.

While a low RHR often suggests greater physical fitness, some situations can make your RHR too low, which may cause occasional dizziness or fatigue. “This may be the result of the electrical nodes of the heart aging, or not transmitting electrical signals correctly,” says Dr. Wasfy. “You should report these symptoms to your health care provider.”

Check your resting heart rate early and often

Dr. Wasfy recommends checking your RHR a few times per week and at different times of the day. Keep in mind that the number can be influenced by many factors, including stress and anxiety, circulating hormones, and medications such as antidepressants and blood pressure drugs.

Talk with your doctor if your resting heart rate is regularly on the high end. If your RHR is within the normal range, or a bit high, there are ways to lower it and keep it within its proper range. One example is keeping your cholesterol levels in check. High levels restrict blood flow through the arteries and damage blood vessels, which can make your heart beat faster than normal to move blood through the body.

Another reliable way to lower your RHR is to exercise. “Even small amounts of exercise can make a change,” says Dr. Wasfy. However, the intensity of the exercise is key. One study that involved 55-year-old adults found that just one hour per week of high-intensity aerobic training (about 66% of maximum effort) lowered RHR more efficiently than a low-intensity effort (33% of max effort).

Tips for measuring your resting heart rate
  • Do not take your RHR within one to two hours after exercise or a stressful event. Your heart rate can stay elevated after strenuous activities.
  • Wait at least an hour after consuming caffeine, which can cause heart palpitations and make your heart rate rise.
  • The American Heart Association recommends checking your resting heart rate first thing in the morning (but before you get out of bed).

Related Information: Harvard Heart Letter

Comments:

  1. Hotelchief

    The heart is a machine that performs as well as its cared for. I exercise regularly and I pay attention to what I eat. I’m 47 and my RHR is 36-38 on average. I use Vivoactive HR to track my fitness.

  2. Yvonne Skellern

    I have a fit bit and regularly go for long walks or bike rides – and usually my RHR is usually about 60 or 63 most days. This week it is has risen to 65 on most days.. Does that increase mean anything. My age is 78 Female. I have been very fit in the past and am still very active mostly do at least 10,000 steps most days.

  3. Steven Francis

    I am 55 years and find this blog very helpful and will start making RHR a daily part of my lifestyle ;

    Steven Francis
    South Africa

  4. roshan sathe

    These days heart problems have become very common and the best way to keep ourselves healthy is exercising. But i completely agree that we need to monitor our heart rate and oxygen level regularly using Easyfit healthcare equipments to maintain a healthy life. Exercise is the only way to keep yourself healthy.

  5. Vinod Sharma

    Thank you for sharing this blog. Very usefull for me.

  6. Janis from Florida

    I am a healthy 81 years old and my resting heart rate is only 38 beats a minute. Is this a concern?

    • Yara

      38 is too low, I think. I’m 66 and when goes to 48 and don’t feel very good. Most of the part if I’m on middle 50 or high I feel better.
      One doctor showed a concern when my brothers heart went to 41. ( maybe because he already has a pacemaker )

  7. Wayne Harrison

    AliveCor makes a ECG case for your smart phone that
    will record, diasnosis, store and send if needed to a cardiologist. Cost is about $70. Well worth it

  8. William Corcoran

    Should I buy a Pulsoximeter to get better RHR readings?

  9. Ramiro Zárate

    Thanks so much for your article. It has been very instructive.

  10. Jaden Smith

    exercising is the best way to reduce your
    heart rate, being good for your heart.

  11. andre

    As I am exercising one hour a day during a great part of my life my resting heart rate is between 50-70 per minute, so exercising is the best way to reduce your heart rate, being good for your heart.

    Andre from The Netherlands.
    age 70+