Your heart beats about 115,000 times in 24 hours, faithfully circulating blood throughout your body. That’s probably not something you think about unless something unusual is going on with your health. But there’s a reason providers refer to your heart rate as a “vital sign” and check it at every appointment. If your heart rate is too fast or too slow, it may indicate a health problem that needs medical attention.
How to check your heart rate
Your heart rate, also called your pulse, is the number of times your heart beats in one minute. You can check your pulse at your wrist or on the side of your neck.
- To check your pulse at the wrist, turn your palm face up. Using your opposite hand, lightly press your index and middle finger on the thumb side of the upturned wrist.
- To check your pulse at the neck, lightly press the side of your neck (below the jawbone) using your index and middle finger.
Count the number of beats in 30 seconds and multiply by two.
It’s good to know your “resting” heart rate, which you can check when you are sitting or lying down and relaxed. For healthy people, a normal resting heart rate is between 60 and 100 beats per minute. Highly conditioned athletes may have a much lower resting heart rate (40 to 60 beats per minute). Thanks to vigorous exercise, their heart muscle is more efficient than average and better able to pump blood throughout the body, resulting in a lower heart rate.
Many factors can elevate your heart rate, including:
- Hot and humid weather
- Stress and anxiety
- Caffeine consumption
- Medications, such as antidepressants and some supplements
- Respiratory illnesses, such as the flu or COVID-19
- Other medical concerns, such as anemia, asthma or a heart condition
Some illnesses can slow down your heart rate, including an underactive thyroid gland and certain types of heart disease.
What about when I’m exercising?
Checking your heart rate while you are exercising can help you gauge the intensity of your workout. First, calculate your maximum heart rate by subtracting your age from the number 220.
- During a moderate-intensity workout, your target heart rate should be 50-69% of your maximum heart rate.
- During a high-intensity workout, your target heart rate should be 70-90% of your maximum heart rate.
So, if you are 50 years old, your maximum heart rate is 170. During a moderate workout, aim for a heart rate of 85-117. During a high intensity workout, aim for 119-153.
Experts at the American Heart Association say that adults should get at least 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity or 75 minutes per week of vigorous aerobic exercise, or a combination of both, preferably spread throughout the week.
When should I be concerned about my resting heart rate?
A lower-than-average or higher-than-average resting heart rate isn’t necessarily a cause for concern. But if you have frequent episodes of unexplained fast heart rates, especially if they make you feel weak, dizzy or faint, contact your provider. He or she can discuss your symptoms with you and recommend testing or follow-up care if needed.
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