Too Slow? Too Fast? What Your Heart Rate Means for Your Health

Have you checked your pulse lately?

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Aside from those times when you feel your heart thumpin’ a little faster—like after that second espresso, before a major job interview, or during a HIIT workout—the pace at which your heart beats probably rarely crosses your mind. Checking in on your ticker from time to time, though, not only helps you understand your fitness level, but it may also signal a developing health problem.

What Different Heart Rates Mean

Your heart rate is the same thing as your pulse. It’s the number of times your heart beats per minute (bpm). What’s considered normal heart rate varies from person to person, and it can fluctuate depending on a variety of factors.

Resting heart rate is how fast your heart is pumping blood when you’re at rest. Typically, a normal resting heart rate is between 60 and 100 bpm. So, if you check your pulse while you’re sitting watching TV or lying down reading a book, that’s likely what your resting heart rate is. Still, your rate may be affected by a variety of factors, such as whether you’re sick, stressed, or on certain medications.

According to the American Heart Association, a good time to check your resting heart rate is right after you wake up from a good night’s sleep (before your morning coffee). Here’s how to find your resting heart rate:

  1. Sit or lie down
  2. Place two fingers on your wrist, inside of your elbow, or on the left side of your neck under your jaw bone.
  3. Count the beats for six seconds, then multiply that number by 10.
  4. That number is your resting heart rate.

In general, when it comes to resting heart rate, lower is better (a lower heart rate is common among people who are very athletic). This means your heart muscle is pumping more efficiently and doesn’t have to work as hard to maintain a steady beat. A Copenhagen University study found that a faster resting heart rate was linked with poorer physical fitness and higher blood pressure and body weight.

Target heart rate and estimated maximum heart rate can help you learn how physically fit you are. Maximum heart rate is an estimate of a person's maximum age-related heart rate. This can be found by subtracting your age from 220. Target heart rate is a percentage of the maximum heart rate, and it measures your fitness by determining whether your pulse during certain activities is within a target zone. You can use these numbers to make sure you’re getting the most out of a cardio workout, for example.

During moderate-intensity physical activity, like brisk walking or dancing, a person's target heart rate should be 50 to 70% of his or her maximum heart rate. During vigorous-intensity activity, like running or aerobics, a person's target heart rate should be 70 to 85% of their maximum heart rate. For example, here’s the formula to determine a target heart rate for a 50-year-old person during moderate-intensity exercise:

220 - 50 (age) = 170 (maximum heart rate)

50% level: 170 x 0.50 = 85 bpm

70% level: 170 x 0.70 = 119 bpm

When to Call a Doctor

If your pulse is continuously very low, or you have frequent bouts of unexplained fast heart rates, especially if you feel dizzy or faint, call your doctor. This could mean you have an arrhythmia (heart rate disorder) which may be harmless, but it could also be a sign of heart problems or that your heart is in immediate danger.