Heart Rate: Myths and Facts

by John Staughton (BASc, BFA) last updated -

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Our heart is an incredibly important part of our lives, and our heart rate can tell us a lot about our overall health and wellness. Knowing some of the myths and facts about heart rate will give you a better picture of your cardiovascular condition.

What is Heart Rate?

The number of times your heart beats each minute is known as your heart rate (HR), and it provides a good basis when assessing your heart health. As you age, your heart rate may change, which could be an indication that you are developing a heart condition. Your heart rate also fluctuates based on your level of activity; for example, while exercising, it will increase, because more blood is being pumped through your body to deliver oxygenated blood to your muscles and other organ systems that are performing work. Similarly, heart rate is influenced by stressors as well; when you’re afraid or anxious, your heart rate may increase due to the presence of stress hormones in your body; this burst of “energy” is linked to our “fight or flight” response. However, these are normal fluctuations in your heart rate, and once you have completed your workout or exited a stressful situation, your heart rate should return to a resting level.

There is a great deal of information about heart rate – some true and some false. In order to protect yourself and ensure a long and healthy life, it’s important to know all the correct facts about heart rate. If you have an elevated or depressed heart rate, it could signify a wide range of cardiovascular conditions, as well as the risk of a stroke, chronically high blood pressure, atherosclerosis and more. When you notice any abnormalities in your HR, such as unexplained drops and rises, or if you feel dizzy or lightheaded for no clear reason, you should speak to a doctor immediately.

Heart Rate Facts

Facts about heart rate include:

Where to Measure Heart Rate

There are a number of good places on the human body to measure heart rate. By placing your fingers on these key points (wrists, side of your neck, inside your elbow), you can feel the blood pumping normally beneath the skin. By counting the number of beats that you feel in 30 seconds, you can then double that number to determine your HR. A stopwatch is always beneficial for this. Also, many wearable fitness gadgets that have emerged in recent years are quite accurate in measuring heart rate. This could be a good option for someone who is at high risk of heart trouble or wants to stay more informed about their heart rate.

When to Measure Heart Rate

As mentioned above, heart rate fluctuates based on our activity level, but your resting heart rate should be rather standard. When you are sitting or lying down, not stressed out, not ill, and relatively calm, your resting HR can be measured. While many people also like to measure their heart rate while exercising, to assess the basic health of your heart, measure your HR when you are calm and relaxed.

A “Normal” Heart Rate

Everyone’s body is different, which means that everyone’s heart rate is too! However, there is a “normal” range that is generally considered healthy. The traditional range for a healthy heart rate is 60-100 beats per minute, but recent studies have found that heart rates of over 75 beats per minute might still reveal signs of cardiovascular distress and increase your risk of heart attack. The sweet spot in the range is somewhere between 60-70, and for most relatively healthy people, their resting HR will sit somewhere in that range.

Changing your Resting Heart Rate

Although it may sound counterintuitive, exercising and pumping your heart rate up from time to time will actually help lower your resting heart rate. The heart needs to work harder to manage all of the body’s activities in people who are less fit. Essentially, the better shape you’re in, the more your body will be able to rest and unwind, resulting in a lower resting HR and a significantly reduced chance of heart attacks and strokes. Now, moderate levels of exercise may not cut it, particularly if your resting heart rate is already hovering around 60. Some top athletes have a resting HR of 40 beats per minute, but that is quite rare, and is the result of years of training.

Other Variables of Heart Rate

There are many external and internal factors that can have an impact on heart rate. For example, the temperature outside, as well as humidity levels, can affect heart rate by 5-10 beats per minute. Your weight can also impact it slightly, as obese people tend to have higher resting heart rates, and even the way you’re sitting or standing can cause fluctuation. If you want to assess your HR and overall health, measure your pulse at the same time each day, under the same conditions.

Heart Rate Myths

Myths about heart rate include:

Chronic Stress

Many people think that having a high resting HR (anything over 80 or so) means that they are chronically stressed out, and that their body is unable to rest or relax. The thing is, many different emotions or experiences can cause your pulse to rise or change, as mentioned above. Even standing up after lying down will cause a spike in your pulse, as will certain medications and foods. While stress can certainly be a contributing factor to an elevated heart rate, it doesn’t mean that it’s the only cause.

Heart Attacks

When your heart “skips a beat” or seems to flutter faster for a few moments, don’t immediately panic. These instances are not, in fact, heart attacks. They are palpitations, and while they could signify a risk factor or a temporary malfunction of the heart, they are rarely life-threatening on their own. They can also be caused by many different variables, including fatigue, alcohol, caffeine, smoking, fever and various medications.

Exercise Heart Rate

As mentioned earlier, many people enjoy monitoring their heart rate while exercising, but there is relatively little value in it for most people. Gamifying your exercise regiment can be a good motivational tool, but given that your HR will be dependent on the intensity of your exercise as well as other unpredictable variables mentioned already, the measurements don’t provide informative results. Unless you are a world-class athlete that is closely monitoring every fluctuation to improve performance, just enjoy the workout and leave your stopwatch at home! That being said, for long-distance runners, cyclists, and even swimmers, wearable tech that gives info on heart rate can help them pace themselves to ensure that they have enough energy “left in the tank”.

Maximum Heart Rate

When you’re in the peak moments of your workout, you may reach your “maximum” heart rate, which means that your body is burning lots of calories and expending a lot of energy. Many people try to manipulate their heart rate to be in “optimal” zones for fat-burning, but in reality, the harder you work, the more calories you’ll burn. However, operating at such a high “maximum heart rate” level, is incredibly tiring, so your workout duration may be shorter. Finally, as you age, your heart becomes slightly weaker, meaning a reduction in maximum HR that is achievable. Pushing yourself to that edge can also be dangerous, as it does put strain on the heart, so remember to work out wisely!

A Final Word of Warning: Irregularities in your heart rate may not signal an emergency, but it’s important to note these instances and speak to a doctor. There are many medications, such as beta blockers, and lifestyle changes that your doctor can suggest to manage or alter your heart rate based on your specific case.

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About the Author

John Staughton is a traveling writer, editor, and publisher who earned his English and Integrative Biology degrees from the University of Illinois in Champaign, Urbana (USA). He is the co-founder of a literary journal, Sheriff Nottingham, and calls the most beautiful places in the world his office. On a perpetual journey towards the idea of home, he uses words to educate, inspire, uplift and evolve.

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