Holly McHugh

Heart Rate: The Most Informative And Available Health Indicator

Exploring the secrets of heart rate and the vital role it plays in maintaining health and wellness.

heart rate as a health indicator

Your heart rate is more than just a number – it’s a window into your body’s most vital organ. This organ pumps blood and oxygen to every inch of your body, keeping you alive and kicking. Therefore, your heart rate (HR) is also a direct reflection of your overall health and well-being, which is why medical professionals and fitness enthusiasts use it as a metric to evaluate health and fitness status. By improving your understanding of the HR, you can take charge of your own health and make informed decisions that will keep you feeling your best.

In this article, we will explain all you need to know about the HR including the difference between heart and pulse rate, maximum and target HR, heart rate recovery, how to measure your HR, and why a healthy measurement is important.

A brief overview of the heart rate

The HR refers to the number of times the heart beats per minute and resting heart rate (RHR) is the number of times it beats per minute when you are at rest. Both are important indicators of health and fitness. A lower RHR or quick heart rate recovery time (more on this below) after exercise can indicate a stronger and more efficient heart, while a higher RHR or slow heart rate recovery may indicate cardiovascular health issues.

The British Heart Foundation states a normal healthy adult RHR is between 60 and 100 beats per minute (BPM). However, it is considered normal for athletes or people who are very physically fit to have an RHR as low as 40-60 beats per minute.

This is because exercise strengthens heart muscles, making the cardiovascular system more efficient at delivering oxygen to muscles and so the organ does not need to beat as frequently to meet the body’s oxygen demands.

An abnormally high HR (also known as tachycardia) that is consistently above the healthy limit can negatively affect your health and could be a sign of underlying health problems. Similarly, a consistently low HR (also known as bradycardia) can also negatively affect health because it can cause insufficient blood flow to the brain and organs in the body. This can lead to fatigue, weakness, dizziness, confusion and fainting, amongst other symptoms.

Your HR can change throughout the day depending on factors such as physical activity, stress, caffeine, medications, and various medical conditions. During exercise, the HR typically increases to enable it to pump more blood and meet the increased oxygen demands of the body. According to The British Heart Foundation, it’s normal for your HR to increase to 130 to 150 beats per minute or more when you exercise rate.

Is there a difference between your HR and pulse?


Heart rate and pulse rate are often confused as the same concept, but they are slightly different. To clear things up: the RHR refers to the number of times the heart beats per minute, while pulse rate refers to the number of times a person’s arteries expand and contract in response to the beating.

When the heart beats, it pumps blood through the arteries, causing them to expand and contract rhythmically. These expansions and contractions can be felt as a pulse at various points on the body, such as the wrist, neck, or groin. To put it simply, the pulse rate is the number of times per minute that these expansions and contractions occur.

Although the HR and pulse are related, there can be some differences between the two. For example, the heart rate is usually measured using an electrocardiogram (ECG), which provides a more accurate measurement of the organ’s electrical activity. The pulse rate can be measured simply by taking a person’s pulse manually or by using an HR monitor, which detects changes in blood flow.

In general, the heart rate and pulse rate should be roughly the same, as the pulse is a reflection of the heart’s contractions. However, there can be some variations depending on factors such as age, fitness level, and medical conditions.

What is the maximum HR?

The maximum heart rate (MHR) is the highest number of times the heart can beat per minute during intense physical activity or exercise. The MHR differs for each individual and can vary based on age, gender, and body size. It’s important to note that your MHR is not a direct reflection of your strength and fitness.

A commonly used formula to estimate MHR is to subtract a person’s age from 220. For example, a 30-year-old would have an estimated MHR of 190 beats per minute (220 – 30 = 190). However, this formula provides a rough estimate and may not be accurate for everyone. So, for more accurate results multiply your age by 0.7 and subtract the result from 208.

MHR = 208 - (Age x 0.7) Source: PubMed

Exercising at or near your MHR can be intense and potentially dangerous, and is generally not recommended for beginners or individuals with certain medical conditions. But, knowing your MHR can help you calculate your target HR. Let us elaborate below.

What is the target heart rate?

The target HR is the number you should aim to achieve during exercise to get the most benefits from a workout and to burn the most calories. It can help you determine whether you are exercising at the appropriate intensity, rather than going off your own perception of exertion – it can be hard to push yourself to the right intensity without something to aim for.

The target HR zone is typically defined as a percentage range of a person’s maximum heart rate (MHR). According to John Hopkins Medicine, you should strive to exercise at 50-85% of the MHR – time to get the calculator out. For example, a 30-year-old person with a maximum heart rate of 190 beats per minute might aim to exercise at a heart rate between 95 and 162 beats per minute, which is 50-85% of their MHR.

What is heart rate recovery?

Heart rate recovery (HRR) is a measure of how quickly your heart rate returns to its resting rate after exercise. It is an important indicator of health and fitness, as a slower recovery time can be a sign of poor cardiovascular fitness, heart disease, or other health issues.

HRR is typically measured by monitoring your heart rate during exercise and then immediately after stopping. The difference in heart rate between the end of exercise and a set time after stopping (usually 1-2 minutes) is your HRR. A faster HRR is generally considered a good sign, as it indicates that your body is able to efficiently regulate your heart rate and oxygen uptake after exercise. Regular physical activity and exercise can improve HRR over time, leading to improved cardiovascular health and fitness.

How to measure your heart rate


Now you know all about the HR, it’s time to get measured! There are several ways to do this, including:

1. Using your fingers: You can place your index and middle fingers on the inside of your wrist, just below the base of your thumb, or on the side of your neck, just below your jawline. Count the number of beats you feel in 60 seconds, or count for 15 seconds and multiply by four.

2. Using a heart rate monitor: You can use a monitor, which can be worn on your wrist, chest, or as an ear clip. These devices use sensors to measure your HR and display it on a digital screen. Some gym equipment have these built in which makes it easy to measure as your exercise and ensure you are reaching your target HR.

3. Using a smartphone app: Many smartphones have built-in monitoring apps that use the camera and flash to detect the blood flow in your finger. You can also download HR monitoring apps from app stores.

4. Visiting a healthcare provider: Your healthcare provider can measure your HR using an electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG), which measures the electrical activity of your heart.

Why is a healthy heart rate so important?

There are many reasons why maintaining a healthy HR is important. Here are some of the key ones:

1Increased longevity

Studies have shown that maintaining a healthy HR can increase longevity by reducing your risk of cardiovascular disease and other health problems. This means that you’re more likely to live a longer, healthier life. According to a 2013 study that looked at the cardiovascular health of 3,000 men over 16 years, a high RHR was associated with low physical fitness, high blood pressure and levels of circulating blood fats and heavy body weight, all of which reduce longevity. Researchers also found a RHR between 81-90 doubled the mortality risk and a RHR above 90 tripled the risk, compared to men with heart rates below 50 bpm.

2Better cardiovascular health

Maintaining a healthy heart rate helps reduce your risk of developing heart disease and other cardiovascular complications such as heart attacks and stroke. When your heart beats at a steady, moderate pace, it’s less likely to experience the strain that can lead to these types of cardiovascular problems.

3Improves athletic performance


Athletes who maintain a healthy heart rate are better able to perform at their peak. A healthy heart rate means that your heart is able to pump blood and oxygen more efficiently, which can increase your endurance and speed.

4Helps manage blood pressure

Keeping a healthy heart rate can help ensure blood pressure remains low. While blood pressure and heart rate are not directly correlated, research has found a high heart rate is linked to elevated blood pressure, which is a major risk factor for heart disease and stroke.

5Better sleep

A healthy heart rate can improve sleep quality. When your heart rate is within a healthy range, you’re more likely to get a good night’s rest, which can lead to better overall health.

6Improves mental health

A healthy heart rate is linked to better mental health. According to a Swedish study, men with heart rates above 82 beats per minute had a 69% increased risk for obsessive-compulsive disorder, a 21% increased risk for schizophrenia, and an 18% increased risk for anxiety disorders, compared with men with resting heart rates below 62 beats per minute.

7Enhances overall health

A healthy heart rate is a sign of good overall health. It means that your body is able to function properly and ensure essential nutrients and oxygen are delivered to your cells and tissues.

Ways to maintain a healthy heart rate

There are several lifestyle factors that can help you maintain a healthy heart rate. Here are some of the most important ones:

1. Exercise regularly: Regular physical activity is the best way to improve your cardiovascular health and reduce your resting heart rate. Interestingly, one study that looked at the effects of different types of exercise found that endurance training and yoga were the most effective at reducing RHR.

2. Maintain a healthy weight: Excess weight can put a strain on your heart and increase your risk of heart disease.

3. Eat a healthy diet: A diet that is high in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein can help improve your cardiovascular health and maintain a healthy heart rate.

4. Manage stress: Chronic stress can increase your heart rate and put a strain on your cardiovascular system. Therefore, it is important to find ways to manage stress, such as meditation, deep breathing, or yoga.

5. Get enough sleep: Research suggests sleep deprivation can increase your heart rate and put a strain on your cardiovascular system. Aim to get 7-9 hours of sleep per night to help maintain a healthy heart rate.

6. Avoid smoking and excessive alcohol consumption: Both smoking and excessive alcohol consumption can increase your heart rate and put a strain on your cardiovascular system.

Fun & curious facts

  • Your HR can increase by up to 30% when you yawn. This is because yawning causes your heart rate to temporarily increase in order to increase blood flow and oxygen to your brain.

  • The heart of a blue whale beats only 5-6 times per minute, making it the slowest rate of any mammal. This is because their massive size allows them to store more oxygen, reducing the need for a higher HR.

  • Laughter can actually lower your heart rate. When you laugh, your body releases endorphins, which can help reduce stress and lower your heart rate. So next time you’re feeling stressed, try watching a funny video or hanging out with friends who make you laugh!

Let’s sum it up

Heart rate is the number of times the heart beats per minute while resting heart rate is the heart rate when the body is at rest. Both heart rate and resting heart rate can be important indicators of cardiovascular health and can be influenced by a range of factors such as physical activity, stress, and emotional state.

The maximum HR is the highest number of times the heart can beat per minute during intense physical activity or exercise, while the target heart rate is a range of heart rates that you should aim to achieve during exercise to get the most cardiovascular and aerobic benefits.

Maintaining a healthy HR is essential for good overall health and well-being and longevity. Next time you have a moment, measure your heart rate through any of the methods above to get an accurate idea of your health status.

And remember, a healthy heart equals a healthy and happy you!

Hungry for knowledge? Here is more

Watch this video by Dr. Eric Berg, in which he explains how the heart rate is connected to mortality risks. Could your heart rate actually predict how long you will live?

Healthypedia FAQ

Your resting heart rate (RHR) is the number of times it beats per minute when you are at rest.

According to the British Heart Foundation, a normal healthy adult heart rate is between 60 and 100 beats per minute (BPM). However, towards the higher end of this scale you are more likely to experience health problems.

Taking part in regular exercise is one of the most effective ways to lower your heart rate because it strengthens your cardiovascular system and makes it more efficient at pumping blood round your body.

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