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If you have a fitness tracker, chances are your heart rate (HR) is something you keep an eye on, but increasing studies show your resting heart rate (RHR) can also be an indicator of underlying health issues. In fact, recent studies suggest that a high resting pulse is a risk factor for early death: middle-aged adults, particularly men, are twice as likely to die younger than peers with slower pulses. While heart attacks in younger men do happen, it’s also important to remember they are very rare: statistics show around 12 men and women under the age of 35 will have a fatal cardiac arrest each week in the UK. And the harder you push yourself – especially during competitive sporting events – the more likely you are to trigger a cardiac arrest.
Why exactly does RHR matter?
There’s more to it than you think, says David Wiener, training specialist at Freeletics. “Your RHR is the number of times your heart beats per minute when you’re still and well rested,” he tells SLMan. “Your RHR is a vital factor that can indicate a number of health problems. A lower RHR, for example, can be linked to higher fitness levels and therefore a lower risk of cardiac events, while a consistently higher RHR has been associated with cardiovascular issues, as well as dizziness, shortness of breath and chest palpitations.” In a nutshell, it’s a reflection of your overall health.
What’s considered a normal RHR?
As a general rule, a healthy RHR should be around 60-100 bpm, says Anthony Fletcher, founder of OneTrack Club and biomechanics coach. “However, RHR is incredibly individual and also fluctuates daily. It also depends on how fit you are. A well-trained athlete would likely have a RHR of around 40 bpm; for a sedentary person this may be closer to 80 bpm. Guidelines are that anywhere between 60-100 bpm is considered normal.” Anthony explains that it also depends on your history. If, for example, you’ve had a RHR of around 60 bpm for years and then it suddenly rises to 100, this isn’t normal. “Vice versa, if it’s usually 100 bpm at rest but drops to 60, then this is considered a sudden change that warrants medical advice.”
How much does your RHR fluctuate during the day?
Your stress response plays a large role, says Anthony. “Your RHR can be a reflection of sympathetic nervous system (i.e. your stress response) inhibition. The heart actually has its own neural loop, meaning that if it’s removed from your body, it will still continue to beat at around 100 bpm. This is the natural rhythm of the heart. If your RHR is lower than 100bpm, it shows the heart is being slowed down by your parasympathetic nervous system (i.e. your body’s ‘relax’ response). Higher than 100 bpm shows it’s being sped up by your stress hormones.” If you are having a particularly stressful day, this will likely increae your RHR; when you are relaxed, it will drop.
A workout will inevitably lead to an increased HR, and it can also stay high for several hours afterwards. “When you exercise, your heart rate needs to increase to pump more blood around your body. While the body cools down and recovers post exercise, it still needs this blood, so your HR will likely remain a little higher than usual for a couple of hours after you leave the gym.”
Coffee can also take its toll, says David. “Caffeine increases your heart rate by blocking adenosine, a chemical in the brain, so measuring your RHR after your morning cup will result in a higher reading.” Dehydration, smoking, anaemia and an underactive thyroid gland can also result in a higher RHR.
Should your RHR be the same every day?
If you assess your RHR from a longer-term perspective – say, across the week – it’s normal for it to change day to day, says Anthony. “If you did a heavy workout the day before, your body will be in a state of repair and needs more blood to support your muscles, so don’t be alarmed if your RHR is a little higher than usual. At the same time, if you take a month off exercise, you may see your RHR increasing as your heart adapts to being less active. Exercise, in particular cardiovascular exercise, can improve your heart’s ability to eject more blood per minute, therefore providing more blood for less effort, so if you have a few weeks off, this will take its toll.”
How can you measure your own RHR?
If you have a fitness tracker that measures heart rate, you’re sorted. If you don’t, it’s a simple procedure. “Start by lying down for five minutes to relax your heart rate to a baseline figure,” says Anthony. “Then, place your index and middle fingers into the wrist at the base of your thumb – or into the carotid artery which is around three inches down from the back of your jaw. Once you’ve found a beat, count how many beats there are for one minute using a timer. You can also count for 30 seconds and then double it, but the more time you are counting for, the more accurate your reading will be.” Anthony also recommends checking your RHR first thing in the morning, which will give a more accurate reading.
If you want to improve your RHR, what can you do?
Improving your fitness levels is a good place to start, David recommends. “The more you exercise, the stronger your heart becomes, meaning the heart doesn’t have to work as hard. Focus on HIIT and general cardio – such as running – which have been shown to improve blood flow around the body. Also focus on getting good quality sleep, as it’s during the deepest stages of sleep that your heart rate slows, and blood pressure drops. Reducing stress, quitting smoking and eating foods rich in healthy fats and antioxidants can also lower blood pressure, making it easier for the heart to pump.” Just remember to factor in recovery time, says Anthony, which is equally as important. “If you are using HIIT as a means to get fit, always factor in 48-72 hours of recovery, which will improve your heart’s ability to contract and have a positive influence on your RHR.”
At what point should you speak to your GP?
“If your RHR goes from 55 to 60 bpm over the course of a few days with no symptoms, this is nothing to worry about,” says Anthony. If, however, your RHR is varying drastically, or is consistently above 100 bpm, you should consult a doctor, especially if you are experiencing other symptoms such as chest tightness, fatigue or shortness of breath.
For more information, head to OneTrack.Club and Freeletics.com. Follow Anthony on Instagram @Aka_Fletch. If you are worried about your heart health, call 111.
DISCLAIMER: Features published by SLMan are not intended to treat, diagnose, cure or prevent any disease. Always seek the advice of your GP or another qualified healthcare provider for any questions you have regarding a medical condition, and before undertaking any diet, exercise or other health-related programme.
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