What is heart rate and how to measure it

By Jenilee Matz, MPH Jan 06, 2021 • 14 min


Thanks to the heart rate feature on many activity trackers, smart watches and apps, many people are aware of their heart rate.

But what does that number tell you? What is a good resting heart rate, and what does it reveal about your health? Here, we'll get into heart rate basics, including heart rate calculation, who needs to check their heart rate and what an elevated heart rate can mean.

Heart rate basics

Your heart rate is how many times your heart beats per minute. Your heart rate changes throughout the day; it's often slower when you sleep and faster when you exercise or feel stressed.

Your heart rate tells you how hard your heart is working to pump blood throughout your body. It can also reveal your fitness level, including if you're exercising too hard or not hard enough. Your heart rate also helps your healthcare provider check your circulation and find the possible cause of symptoms, such as heart palpitations (uneven or fast heartbeat), fainting, dizziness or chest pain. Your heart rate is also used to monitor some medical conditions and the effects of certain medications, including beta-blockers.

Even though many wearable devices quickly measure heart rate, the truth is that many people don't need to frequently monitor their heart rate. If you have a heart condition or take certain medications, your healthcare provider may recommend that you check your heart rate regularly. In addition, competitive athletes may track their heart rates in an effort to improve fitness.

What's the difference between pulse vs. heart rate?

Your pulse is the wave of blood moving through your arteries. Your heart rate is the rate at which your heart contracts, but it is most often calculated by measuring the pulse wave. You can use your pulse to measure heart rate most of the time.

How to check heart rate

First, find your pulse. It's located where an artery is close to the skin. You can use your wrist, inside of your elbow, side of your neck, temple, groin, back of your knees or top or inner side of your foot. (Sit down before checking your pulse in your neck, as it can cause fainting and a slowed heartbeat.) Gently press your index and middle fingers on your pulse until you feel it beat. Then count the number of times it beats in 60 seconds. Or count the number of beats in 30 seconds and multiply that number by two. This is your current heart rate.

To gauge your resting heart rate, it's best to check your heart rate as soon as you wake up. Check it before getting out of bed on a morning after you've slept well. You can also measure you're resting heart rate after you've rested for at least 10 minutes.

What should my resting heart rate be?

There's a range of heart rate variability for a healthy heart rate. In general, a lower heart rate means a stronger and more efficient heart. But a good heart rate depends on several factors, including genetics, age, health conditions, fitness level and medications. So, what is a normal heart rate? For most adults, a normal, healthy resting heart rate is between 60–100 beats per minute (bpm).

However, a heart rate below 60 bpm isn't necessarily a cause for concern. If you exercise regularly, your resting heart rate may be lower. In fact, highly trained athletes often have a resting heart rate closer to 40 bpm. Aerobic exercise strengthens the heart, meaning the heart doesn't have to work as hard to maintain a steady beat. This results in fewer beats per minute.

What is the average heart rate?

Most adults have a resting heart rate between 60–100 bpm. Use this heart rate chart to find average resting heart rates by age:

Age group Average resting heart rate in beats per minute (bpm)
Newborns 0-1 month old 70-190 bpm
Infants 1-11 months old 80-160 bpm
Children 1-2 years old 80-130 bpm
Children 3-4 years old 80-120 bpm
Children 5-6 years old 75-115 bpm
Children 7-9 years old 70-110 bpm
Children 10 years and older and adults 60-100 bpm

What is a normal fetal heart rate?

Healthy baby heart rates vary. A normal fetal heart rate ranges from 120–160 bpm.

What's considered a low heart rate?

Bradycardia is the term for a heart rate that's too slow. A resting heart rate below 60 bpm is considered low. But not everyone with a heart rate below this threshold has bradycardia. Athletes and physically fit people often have resting heart rates between 40–60 bpm.

Bradycardia can occur due to problems with the heart's sinoatrial node (natural pacemaker) or in the conduction pathways of the heart. A low heart rate can also be due to side effects of certain medications, metabolic issues, such as hypothyroidism, or heart damage from heart disease or a heart attack.

If your heart rate is too low, your brain may not receive enough blood flow. Talk to your healthcare provider if your resting heart rate is continually low or if you have symptoms of bradycardia, including:

  • Weakness or fatigue
  • Dizziness or lightheadedness
  • Fainting spells or feeling faint
  • Confusion
  • Shortness of breath
  • Trouble exercising

What's considered a high heart rate?

Tachycardia is the medical term for a heart rate that's too fast. For most adults, it's defined as a heart rate above 100 bpm. However, the exact number of beats per minute for a dangerous heart rate depends on your age and physical condition.

There are three types of tachycardia: atrial or supraventricular, ventricular and sinus tachycardia. Each type starts in a different location in the heart. A rapid heart rate can be a normal response to strenuous exercise, hot temperatures, extreme happiness or sadness, fear, anxiety or blood loss. It can also be due to medical conditions, such hyperthyroidism, lung problems and cardiac arrhythmia (abnormal heart rate or rhythm). Tachycardia can also be a side effect of certain medications, such as thyroid medicine, or due to illicit drug use.

If your resting heart rate is continually above the normal range or if you have episodes where you feel like your heart is racing, see your healthcare provider. Signs of tachycardia can include:

  • Fatigue
  • Dizziness or lightheadedness
  • Fainting spells
  • Heart palpitations (fast heartbeat)
  • Shortness of breath

Exercising and heart rate

During exercise, your heart rate increases. When you finish your exercise session, it will take some time for your heart rate to return to its resting or normal state. The more fit you are, the more quickly your heart rate will return to normal.

Your heart rate can help guide you during a fitness session. If your heart rate is too high during a workout, you're likely pushing yourself too hard. If it's too low, you may not get the results you want, especially if you're trying to lose weight. To find your targeted heart rate for exercise, you'll first need to figure out your maximum heart rate. You may wonder "what is my maximum heart rate?" It's the upper threshold of how many heart beats per minute your heart can handle during exercise. To estimate your maximum heart rate, start with 220 and subtract your age in years. For instance, if you're 45 years old, your maximum heart rate is 175 bpm (220 – 45 = 175 bpm).

To achieve benefits during physical activity, it's recommended to work out at certain percentages of your maximum heart rate, depending on your current fitness level and health goals. For moderate-intensity physical activity, aim for 50%–70% of your maximum heart rate (the so-called "fat burn heart rate" zone). For vigorous physical activity, strive for a heart rate between 70%–85% of your maximum heart rate (the so-called "aerobic" zone). Despite the names for these zones, there really isn't an exact target heart rate for fat burning. In fact, you'll burn fat and calories in either heart rate zone. Weight loss comes down to burning more calories than you take in. The more intensely you work out, the higher your heart rate rises, resulting in more calories burned. However, you also burn more calories the longer you work out, and it's easier to exercise for a longer amount of time at a moderate intensity than at a vigorous intensity.

Keep in mind that these target heart rates are only a guide. If you don't exercise regularly, talk to your healthcare provider before increasing your activity level. Some medications, including certain blood pressure medicines, can affect your heart rate. In addition, people with certain heart conditions or other medical issues may require special considerations or monitoring when starting an exercise program. Discuss your target heart rate with your healthcare provider. They can tell you if you need to use a different target heart rate zone.

To learn your heart rate during exercise, consider wearing a heart rate monitor. Or stop exercising for a short time, and check your pulse during workout sessions.

How are heart rate and blood pressure related?

Your heart rate is the number of times your heart beats per minute, while your blood pressure is the force of blood moving through your blood vessels. Both are important measures of health, but they're not directly related. When your heart rate increases, your blood pressure doesn't rise at the same rate. If your healthcare provider advised you to monitor your blood pressure, know that checking your heart rate isn't a substitute. If you have any concerns about your heart rate or blood pressure, discuss them with your healthcare provider.

How to lower heart rate

Certain habits can help reduce your resting heart rate and keep your heart healthy:

  • Get regular exercise. While your heart rate increases during exercise, being physically active regularly gradually brings down your resting heart rate.
  • Combat stress. Performing relaxation techniques, such as meditation and tai chi, can reduce stress levels and your resting heart rate.
  • Don't smoke. People who smoke have a higher resting heart rate, but quitting can help lower it. If you smoke, get help to quit. Walgreens can support you.
  • Reach and maintain a healthy weight. The heart has to work extra hard to supply larger bodies with blood. Losing and keeping a healthy weight can help reduce a high heart rate.

Your heart rate is one measure of your health. Most adults have a resting heart rate between 60–100 bpm. If your heart rate is frequently higher or lower than this range for an unknown reason, talk to your healthcare provider. Also let your provider know if your pulse is hard to find or if you have a firm pulse (bounding pulse) or irregular pulse.

Updated January 2021.

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