The first thing this article should make clear is this: there really is no “ideal” resting heart rate that applies to everyone, even people who seem physically similar.
General recommendations are a good guideline for the majority of people, but this doesn’t mean that they’re necessarily applicable to you.
Let me explain.
A person can have, for example, 20/20 vision. That is a well-defined concept and relatively easy to measure: a person can either see clearly or less clearly, there’s a continuous scale between what we consider good and bad, and that’s that.
With resting heart rates, though, the situation is different.
While this can be very valuable medical information, especially when a log of several consecutive measurements is kept, the wrinkle is that there is no ideal resting heart rate that everyone should aspire to.
If an Olympic cyclist has achieved his ideal resting heart rate of 40 bpm, good for him. If an obese person in their sixties scores the same, it is probably a very bad sign and symptoms such as dizziness would probably have appeared a good while ago.
What Is a Resting Heart Rate, Anyway
and What Makes it Ideal?
Every little thing we do – digesting food, carrying out cellular processes we’re not even aware of, moving, and even thinking – consumes energy. This implies that oxygen is needed wherever the action takes place, and the heart automatically speeds up slightly to deliver that oxygen.
When we’re asleep, only our essential maintenance and housekeeping functions are left running. Our bodies’ energy demands are therefore the lowest they ever are, and our heart rate at the moment we wake up is (usually) the lowest it will be for the rest of that day.
If you invest in a fitness tracker, you might be shocked to learn what a see-saw ride your cardiovascular system actually goes through. Your heart rate changes wildly depending on how much coffee you’ve had, whether you’re climbing stairs, your level of aggravation from the elevator not working, an asymptomatic viral infection, whether your girlfriend is wearing something special – too many factors to take into account.
Knowing this, in conjunction with several other factors, can therefore tell you and your doctor a great deal about your general level of health and fitness.
As one example, an overly high resting heart rate is one of the best predictors of cardiovascular disease, which is exactly what kills one in four Americans.
The relationship between the two is very well documented, even within the upper part of the “normal” spectrum. Speaking very generally, a rate of somewhere around the slower range (50-70 bpm) is good, while sudden (in terms of days or weeks) changes are not.
How to Measure Your Resting Heart Rate
Taking your own pulse is a good habit to cultivate, whether you are trying to get into tip-top shape or you have any health concerns. This can be especially helpful if you keep notes or draw a graph of how it changes over time, which a fitness tracking app makes easy to do.
The only time to measure your resting heart rate is as soon as you get up. Even by the time you’ve finished brushing your teeth, your cardiovascular system has switched from pumping blood through a supine body to an upright one. There’s probably more blood flowing to your organs, coffee may have been consumed, and a whole bunch of your body’s systems have started to reboot.
If you don’t have a heart rate monitor, the easiest way to determine your pulse is to use a wristwatch that can indicate seconds. Using your index and middle finger, try to locate a clearly palpable beat in the hollow between your collar bones, adjacent to your windpipe (Adam’s apple), or on the side of your neck roughly below either eye.
If you can’t find a pulse here, try on your wrist at the base of your thumb, but don’t use the thumb of your other hand, or the pulses in both will tend to overlap. Simply count the number of beats in 30 seconds and multiply by two to get Beats per Minute.
Some people find taking their own pulse difficult: they hold their breath trying to “listen” to their heart, they get stressed about missing a beat, or they worry too much about getting a high reading. Any of these will tend to overestimate your resting heart rate, so it may be best to ask another person to do it or get a cheap heart monitor. In fact, even the best ones aren’t that expensive.
Interpreting Your Resting Heart Rate
In general, if your resting heart rate is lower than 90 beats per minute and over 50, you’ve got no reason to worry.
If it’s outside that range, worry a little bit and see a doctor when you can – sooner, of course, if it’s much higher or lower than expected.
If, however, your resting heart rate has changed significantly in the past few days or weeks, you might be in trouble. This can be an early warning sign of an infection or other problem, and demonstrates that an ergonomic heart rate monitor is something not only athletes can benefit from, but at-risk people too.
If you don’t have one yet, you may want to check out our review of 10 different wristband monitors (see here). We learned that the accuracy of a wristband monitor may not be as good as a chestband, but they’re much easier to wear in bed and can monitor your pulse overnight (which is the best time to monitor your resting heart rate).
Don’t freak out unnecessarily if something odd happens with your heart rate. Most of the time the cause turns out to be something quite minor. Mental and emotional stress will automatically raise your resting heart rate as well as your pulse at the time – much like what often happens in anxiety attacks. You may end up worrying yourself into having a problem that didn’t even have to exist!
Is a Non-Ideal Resting Heart Rate Just Bad Luck?
Very young children’s hearts can beat extremely fast; this is perfectly normal. By their teenage years, their resting heart rates will usually fall into the adult ideal range, while this will again start to speed up around middle age.
Women’s pulses are slightly higher than men’s, as are those of physically larger people even if they’re not overweight. Finally, some people are just luckier than others when it comes to their genes.
These factors are all beyond your control. They define, in a sense, to an extent and in a person not suffering from bradycardia (abnormally slow heart rate), the lowest heart rate you can achieve – your ideal resting heart rate.
In this case, your organs and muscles don’t somehow get by with using less oxygen; in fact, your arteries are wide and clear and your heart muscle is strong enough to pump more blood with fewer strokes.
Before we continue, let’s have a look at some averages of expected heart rates.
Knowing that you have a higher or lower ideal resting heart rate because of the birth lottery isn’t, by itself, especially helpful. What is a little more inspiring is this: the vast, vast majority of people who have a resting heart rate well above the “normal” for their demographic are not just victims of circumstance.
In other words, even if you don’t have a marathon runner’s genome, your cardiac health is still at least 80% in your own hands. You are certainly not powerless to address the following:
Tobacco, Alcohol, and Drug Abuse
There’s no reason to remind anyone reading this that all of the above are to be avoided. The only question that really needs to be posed is this: does the damage caused by taking noxious chemicals into your body somehow damage your heart, lungs and arteries before any other organ, or does the strain this places on every single cell in your body just force your cardiovascular system work that much harder to keep up?
In many cases, depending on the poison, the answer is “both”.
We can also include in this category the related phenomenon of legitimate pharmaceuticals being misprescribed. Errors of this kind affect as many as 7 million people annually in the U.S. alone. Mistakes can creep in at several points in the patient journey, and the truth is that deciding on the best treatment for any given patient remains something of a guessing game (a pill that cures 70% of people won’t necessarily make you 70% better).
Your physician does, assuredly, probably know more than you do about the subject she’s spent a decade or so studying. If, however, your symptoms have persisted or even gotten worse after starting treatment (called a “paradoxical reaction”), you’re now taking medication #8 to relieve the side effects of #7, or you wish to explore holistic treatments, you should certainly consult her again or get a second opinion from another doctor.
If there is one sure-fire way of taking control of your health and gradually getting closer to your ideal heart rate, it is to work out. If you’re a writer, a helpdesk employee, or have any other job that requires you to sit at your desk all day, this rule applies even more. think about posture while working
Cardio training (which unsurprisingly means the kind that raises your pulse) is the way to go, although resistance training (the kind that challenges your muscles) has several complementary benefits. Specifically, “pumping iron” will cause you to lose weight much more rapidly, reducing the load on your heart, and it may help in controlling cholesterol.
Exercise is also highly effective at relieving stress and improving sleep; in technical terms, it stimulates the parasympahetic nervous system. This, by itself, is likely to bring your resting heart rate closer to your body’s natural optimum.
As if making friends with a rowing machine isn’t bad enough, cabbage, now, too?
The good news is that changing your diet, while even more intimidating to many people than starting an exercise routine, is not only doable but easier than most imagine.
As with exercise, the benefits are not only physical but mental: many people who do either as a way to achieving their ideal resting heart rate end up feeling happier, more energetic, and more focused.
The basic goal here is to increase your intake of fiber, antioxidants, and unsaturated fats while decreasing the amount of saturated fat and simple carbohydrates you eat. In other words, less red meat and white bread, more veggies and beans.
In practice, several different types of diet exist relating to ideal resting heart rates, but few depart far from the above guidelines.
A good place to start would be to page through a heart-healthy cooking book aimed at beginners. You may find the adjustment more pleasant than you think.
Between eating well and exercising, you should easily be able to get closer to your theoretically-ideal resting heart rate, whatever your current state of health. Even simple lifestyle changes can easily lead to improvements of 10 to 20 bpm given time. You should not, however, expect results overnight or even before much less than three months have passed. Pills may work more quickly, but often these only mask a problem which really should be solved.