With fitness trackers all the rage, you might be one of thousands of people who regularly track your steps and your heart rate.
Generally speaking, when experts talk about heart rate they use the term “resting heart rate” (RHR).
A resting heart rate is a measure of the number of heartbeats when you’re not moving or exerting yourself some other way. There’s pretty good evidence that lower is better. Let’s take a closer look.
Generally, a lower heart rate at rest implies more efficient heart function and better cardiovascular fitness. It usually means your heart muscle is in better condition and doesn’t have to work as hard to maintain a steady beat. For example, a well-trained athlete might have a normal resting heart rate closer to 40 beats per minute.1
However, many experts say 95 to 100 is not ‘normal’ and may be cause for concern.
High Resting Heart Rate and Premature Death
There’s plenty of other research pointing to an association between high resting heart rate and poor cardiovascular health.
In a 2013 study, researchers tracked the cardiovascular health of about 3,000 men for 16 years. They discovered that a high RHR was linked with lower physical fitness, and higher blood pressure, body weight, and circulating blood fats.2
The researchers also found that the higher a person’s RHR, the greater the risk of premature death. In particular, an RHR between 81 and 90 doubled the chance of death, while an RHR higher than 90 tripled it.
Dr. Matthew Martinez, chair of the American College of Cardiology’s sports and exercise cardiology section, notes that someone with a resting heart rate consistently above 100 beats per minute, with or without symptoms such as shortness of breath, chest pain, or dizziness, should see a doctor pronto.
Dr. Martinez adds that heart rate can vary due to caffeine, stress, and more. However, rapid changes — of more than 20 beats per minute within a minute at rest — are cause for concern.
Benefits of a Slower Heart Rate
One important study published in 2020 looked at an enormous data set of resting heart rates. The researchers analyzed data from wearable devices worn by 92,457 people.3
The authors found that the rates can widely vary – by up to 70 beats – from person to person.
The study also highlighted that an individual’s RHR is fairly consistent over time, and so deviations from the typical rate could be an indicator that something is wrong. It could be useful to find out what’s normal for you. That way you have a baseline, and sudden jumps can tip you off that there may be a problem.
“The variability of the resting heart rate may provide additional information, not only for cardiovascular health but also for pulmonary status, infectious disease detection, reproductive health, and possibly more,” says Giorgio Quer, first author of the study.
Dr. Quer admits that one of the limitations of the research is that it only tracked the participant’s “normal” heart rate, without looking at their actual health.
“We do not have information on the health condition of the individuals, so we cannot say that ‘normal’ also means healthy,” says Dr. Quer.
It’s important to note that when your heart rate is too slow, it’s referred to as bradycardia. Bradycardia is typically defined as a heart rate that’s less than 60 beats per minute. That’s fine for a conditioned athlete, but in non-athletes it can indicate an underlying health condition.4
Measuring Your Resting Heart Rate
Next time you’re wearing a fitness tracker, check your resting heart rate. According to Harvard Medical School, the best time to measure your resting heart rate is before you get out of bed in the morning.5
Don’t have a fitness tracker? You can do it the old fashioned way.
Measure heart rate at the wrist by placing two fingers between the bone and tendon over your radial artery—that’s located on the thumb side of your wrist. When you feel your pulse, count the number of beats in 15 seconds, and multiply by four. That’s your resting heart rate.
Fitness devices can be a nice way to motivate you to get moving—and that’s more important than anything. Your resting heart rate should always be considered in the context of other health markers like blood pressure.
The good news is lifestyle tweaks can help bring any concerning heart rate numbers down. Daily exercise, weight loss and smoking cessation are excellent places to start.