The heart rate is one of the ‘vital signs,’ or the important indicators of health in the human body. It measures the number of times per minute that the heart contracts or beats.
The speed of the heartbeat varies as a result of physical activity, threats to safety, and emotional responses. The resting heart rate refers to the heart rate when a person is relaxed.
While a normal heart rate does not guarantee that a person is free of health problems, it is a useful benchmark for identifying a range of health issues.
Normal resting heart rate
The heart rate measures how many times the heart beats in 60 seconds.
It is important to identify whether your heart rate sits within the normal range. If disease or injury weakens the heart, the organs will not receive enough blood to function normally.
The United States National Institutes of Health (NIH) have published a list of normal resting heart rates.
The heart rate gets progressively slower as a person moves through childhood toward adolescence.
The normal resting heart rate for adults over the age of 10 years, including older adults, is between 60 and 100 beats per minute (bpm).
Highly trained athletes may have a resting heart rate below 60 bpm, sometimes reaching 40 bpm.
The following is a table of normal resting heart rates at different ages according to the NIH:
The resting heart rate can vary within this normal range. It will increase in response to a variety of changes, including exercise, body temperature, emotional triggers, and body position, such as for a short while after standing up quickly.
What is the heart rate?
The heart rate is the number of times the heart beats in the space of a minute.
The heart is a muscular organ in the center of the chest. When it beats, the heart pumps blood containing oxygen and nutrients around the body and brings back waste products.
A healthy heart supplies the body with just the right amount of blood at the right rate for whatever the body is doing at that time.
For example, being frightened or surprised automatically releases adrenaline, a hormone, to make the heart rate faster. This prepares the body to use more oxygen and energy to escape or confront potential danger.
The pulse is often confused with the heart rate but refers instead to how many times per minute the arteries expand and contract in response to the pumping action of the heart.
The pulse rate is exactly equal to the heartbeat, as the contractions of the heart cause the increases in blood pressure in the arteries that lead to a noticeable pulse.
Taking the pulse is, therefore, a direct measure of heart rate.
Target heart rates during exercise
The heart rate increases during exercise.
When training for fitness, it is important not to put too much strain on the heart. However, an individual needs the heart rate to increase while exercising to provide more oxygen and energy for the rest of the body.
While the heart rate increases as a result of physical activity, an overall decrease in target heart rate is possible over time. This means that the heart is working less to get the necessary nutrients and oxygen to different parts of the body, making it more efficient.
Cardiovascular training aims to reduce the target heart rate. The ideal target heart rate reduces with age. It is also worth noting the maximum heart rate. This demonstrates the full capability of the heart, and it is normally reached through high-intensity exercise.
The American Heart Association (AHA) states that the maximum heart rate during exercise should be roughly equal to 220 bpm minus the age of the person.
As the body of each individual will react to exercise differently, the target heart rate is presented as a range known as the target heart rate zone.
The following table shows the appropriate target heart rate zone for a range of ages. A person’s heart rate should fall within this range when exercising at 50 to 80 percent intensity, also known as exertion.
It is recommended that people exercise regularly to work towards a healthy target heart rate. The AHA recommends the following amounts and levels of exercise per week:
Abnormal heart rhythms
The speed of the heart is not the only factor to bear in mind when considering its health. The rhythm of the heartbeat is important too. The heart should beat with a steady rhythm, and there should be a regular gap between beats.
The muscle has an electrical system that tells it when to beat and push blood around the body. A faulty electrical system can lead to an abnormal heart rhythm.
It is normal for the heart rate to vary throughout the day in response to exercise, anxiety, excitement, and fear. However, a person should not normally be aware of their resting heartbeat.
If you feel that your heart is beating out of rhythm, too fast, or too slow, speak to a doctor about your symptoms.
A person may also feel the sensation of having missed or “skipped” a beat, or it may feel like there has been an extra beat. An extra beat is called an ectopic beat. Ectopic beats are very common, usually harmless, and do not often need treatment.
People concerned about palpitations or ectopic beats should speak to your doctor who will be able to carry out an electrocardiogram (ECG) to assess the heart rate and the rhythm.
There are many different types of abnormal heart rhythm. The type depends on where in the heart the abnormal rhythm starts, and whether it causes the heart to beat too fast or too slow. The most common abnormal rhythm is atrial fibrillation. This replaces the normal heartbeat with an erratic pattern.
A fast heart rhythm is also known as a tachycardia, and can include:
- supraventricular tachycardia (SVT)
- inappropriate sinus tachycardia
- atrial flutter
- atrial fibrillation (AF)
- ventricular tachycardia (VT)
- ventricular fibrillation (VF)
Slow heart rhythms such as atrioventricular (AV) heart block, bundle branch block, and tachy-brady syndrome are called bradycardias.
Maintaining a normal heart rate
A healthy heartbeat is crucial for protecting cardiac health.
While exercise is important for promoting a low and healthy heart rate, there are several other steps a person can take to protect their heart health, including:
- Reducing stress: Stress can contribute to an increased heart rate and blood pressure. Ways to keep stress at bay include deep breathing, yoga, mindfulness training, and meditation.
- Avoiding tobacco: Smoking leads to a higher heart rate, and quitting can reduce it to a normal level.
- Losing weight: More body weight means that the heart has to work harder to provide all areas of the body with oxygen and nutrients.
One in every four deaths in the U.S. is due to heart disease. Maintaining a normal heart rate is one of the easiest ways to protect the heart.
Various products to manage heart rate, such as wearable heart rate monitors, are available to purchase online. It is important to compare the benefits and features of different brands, and speak to a doctor about the use of these products.
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Last medically reviewed on November 14, 2017
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