What Is Your Heart Rate Saying About Your Health?

How familiar are you with your heart rate ? Regardless of whether you’re a seasoned athlete or spend a little too much time sitting , your heart rate can give important clues about your overall health. Here are some guidelines to deciphering what your heart might be trying to tell you. What is a normal heart rate?

Credit: DragonImages/Getty Images You don’t necessarily need a (sometimes faulty) fitness device to measure your heart rate. The American Heart Association recommends placing your finger over a pulse point — the wrist, inside of the elbow, side of the neck or top of the foot work best — and counting the beats for a minute. (You also can count beats for 30 seconds and double the result if you’d like.) Do this while you’re seated and relaxed (don’t be sipping a cup of coffee ) to find your resting heart rate, and repeat it on multiple occasions for verification. Also, note any irregular rhythms.

Most people have a resting heart rate somewhere between 60 and 100 beats per minute. And there are several factors that can affect where you fall within that range — some that are perfectly normal and others that might be cause for concern. For instance, people who get lots of physical activity tend to have lower resting heart rates because their heart muscles are stronger and more efficient. Plus, certain medications, emotions, body position, weight and even air temperature can cause changes to your heart rate, according to the American Heart Association.

But sometimes your heart rate might alert you to certain diseases or signal future problems. So it’s important to keep your finger on your pulse (no pun intended) to know what it might be trying to say. A slow heart rate

Several factors can contribute to a slow heart rate. In a healthy person, a slow rate might be linked to superb physical fitness, sleep and certain drugs, including blood pressure medications, according to Harvard Medical School . Athletes might even have resting heart rates of roughly 40 beats per minute, which is perfectly normal for their bodies, the American Heart Association says.

But sometimes a slow heart rate — or bradycardia — might signal a more serious health issue. There can be trouble with the sinoatrial node (your natural pacemaker), issues with the heart’s conduction pathways or heart damage, according to the American Heart Association. A slow rate also can be a symptom of hypothyroidism, too much potassium in the blood or certain infections, including Lyme disease, Harvard Medical School says.

A heart rate that’s too slow might cause you to feel tired, weak, dizzy, faint or confused, according to the American Heart Association. You also might experience shortness of breath and trouble exercising. Without treatment, it can lead to blood pressure issues, fainting, chest pain and even heart failure, so it’s important to tell your doctor about any of these symptoms. A fast heart rate

Just like with a slow heart rate, a fast rate sometimes can be perfectly healthy. Exercise, of course, raises a person’s heart rate, “especially if it’s rigorous or associated with dehydration,” according to Harvard Medical School. Emotions also can easily make your heart beat faster — as can stimulants, such as caffeine . Furthermore, pregnancy can cause women to have a faster heart rate.

On the flip side, several diseases and some medications are linked to a fast heart rate. Most infections and fevers come with a raised rate. Plus, it can be a sign of low potassium, anemia, an overactive thyroid or asthma. And it can be associated with some heart problems, including “cardiomyopathy (in which the pumping function of the heart is reduced), atrial fibrillation, or ventricular tachycardia,” Harvard Medical School says. It also can be a warning sign for future heart issues.

Moreover, a study published in the journal Heart found a high resting heart rate is linked to lower physical fitness, and it can be a predictor for premature death. Participants with resting heart rates between 81 and 90 beats per minute doubled their risk of mortality, and those with resting heart rates higher than 90 beats per minute tripled their risk.

Symptoms of a fast heart rate include palpitations, shortness of breath, chest pain or tightness, dizziness, lightheadedness and fatigue, according to Harvard Medical School. But sometimes people have no symptoms, which is why it’s a good idea to keep tabs on your heart rate and practice a heart-healthy lifestyle. Using your heart rate for better exercise

Credit: Pekic/Getty Images Besides acting as a warning sign for health issues, your heart rate also can help you get the most from your workouts. And being familiar with your target heart rate zone is key.

First, calculate your maximum heart rate, which generally is 220 minus your age. “This is the maximum number of times your heart should beat per minute during exercise,” according to Mayo Clinic . Your target zone for moderate to vigorous exercise should be about 50 percent to 85 percent of your maximum heart rate. If you want to skip the math, there are plenty of online charts that can serve as your guide.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity per week or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity. And your heart rate can be an objective indicator of how hard you’re working. Moderate activity should be about 50 percent to 70 percent of your maximum heart rate, while vigorous activity is about 70 percent to 85 percent, according to the American Heart Association.

Still, before you get too wrapped up in checking your heart rate throughout your workouts, remember to gauge how you feel, as well. “Studies show that your perceived exertion compares well with your heart rate,” according to Mayo Clinic. “So if you think you’re working hard, your heart rate is probably higher than usual.” Moderate activity should have you breathing more rapidly (but not out of breath), lightly sweating after about 10 minutes and able to carry on a conversation. Vigorous exercise should have you breathing deeply and rapidly, sweating after a few minutes and unable to say more than few words without taking a breath.

Listen to your body, and be conscientious about overexerting yourself. If a workout feels especially challenging or your heart rate is too high, back off. If your heart rate is too low, you might want to pick up the pace. Of course, always consult a doctor about changes to your physical activity or issues that arise when you exercise. That little bit of extra attention to your heart rate might end up doing wonders for your overall health.

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