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What Your Heart Rate Says About Your Health

March 24, 2023

We all want a healthy heart, but how do we know when it’s actually healthy?

A good starting point is paying attention to your heart rate – both the resting rate (when you’re not doing any activity) and any major variations that may pop up.

Bradley Biskup, PA, with the Hartford HealthCare Heart & Vascular Institute Lifestyle Medicine Program, explains what our heart rate says about our health and how we can monitor it with or without the help of technology.

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Your heart’s primary focus

The heart’s focus is to maintain blood circulation through the lungs and body, says Biskup, pumping five to six liters a minute. During exertion or activity, the heart increases cardiac output five to 10 times by increasing the heart rate and in turn, the volume pumped with each beat.

What is a “normal” heart rate?

Normal heart rate ranges anywhere from 60 to 100 beats per minute. Variation in heart beat is caused by a number of factors including body size and fitness level.

Smaller, petite people may have a higher rate while larger people can have slower rates, explains Biskup.

“Think of body surface area. A mouse has a resting heart rate of 350 to maintain its body temperature, while an elephant has a resting heart rate of 15 because it holds the heat and takes longer to circulate blood,” Biskup says.

Similarly, those who do long aerobic exercise – like marathon runners – have lower resting heart rates because their hearts are more efficient and don’t have to beat as often.

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How can I tell if there’s a problem with my heart?

If there’s a blockage or coronary artery disease, your heart works harder but you don’t get enough blood flow. This can cause signs of ischemia, such as chest pain or shortness of breath.

Does that mean you should see a doctor every time you get winded walking up the stairs?

Not necessarily, says Biskup. Getting short of breath going up stairs is common in people who are out of shape, but if it’s worse than normal, you may want to follow up with your healthcare provider.

> Related: 10 “Silent” Signs of a Heart Attack That You Should Know

Why should you know your heart rate?

It’s a good idea for everyone – especially those who exercise – to have an idea of their normal heart rate so they can spot abnormalities.

One option? Wearable devices that can track heart rate and even offer mobile EKGs.

But if you don’t have a wearable tracker, the best place to take your pulse is the wrist, just above where it flexes on the thumb side, Biskup says.

“You can usually tell if it is regular or irregular,” Biskup says. “We worry the most if your heart rate goes up and it’s irregular or you don’t feel right.”