Get to Know Your Heart Rate – It Might Save Your Life

Your heart rate (a.k.a. pulse) is a measure of how many times your heart beats in a minute. Generally, a healthy resting heart rate (RHR) varies between 50 and 90 beats per minute (bpm), but this number can vary depending on factors such as medications and fitness levels. Many of us know our heart rates during exercise since most cardio machines have a heart rate display or because of the use of heart rate monitor devices which allow us to track fitness and performance. However, do you know your heart rate when you are at rest and does it matter? It absolutely does and it is one of the simplest measures of heart health, and can even help with stress management. Let’s look at some of these factors:
1. Higher Resting Heart Rate (RHR) Increases Risk of Death:
Several studies have confirmed that the higher your resting heart rate, the greater your risk of death. Most of this death is due to heart disease, but studies also show higher death rates from all causes. One study showed that a RHR of over 90 beats per minute doubled heart disease death rates in men and tripled heart disease death rates in women. How do you measure your RHR? The easiest way is to put two fingers on the side of your neck or on your wrist and count how many beats you feel after 15 seconds and then multiply by four. Got an iPhone? If so, download an app called “Instant Heart Rate” by Azumio, which uses your iPhone flash to measure your pulse. Just gently keep your fingertip over the iPhone flash and tada…you get an accurate pulse reading. You can confirm its accuracy by checking your wrist or neck pulse after getting your reading. If you are planning on participating in a regular exercise program, I recommend purchasing a heart rate monitor where you wear a comfortable chest strap that relays your pulse to a wrist watch sensor. Measuring your pulse rate during exercise and immediately after is very difficult to do with your finger, so a heart rate monitor lets you easily track your pulse and fitness levels during workouts. 
 2. Heart Rate Recovery (HRR) Time: 
 Healthy, fit people’s hearts take less time to recover after exercise. Out-of-shape people continue huffing and puffing while their heart rate stays high for a much longer time. HRR is not just a measure of fitness, but is also correlated with the risk of dying from a heart attack. So how do you measure this? Exercise at a high intensity. A simple measure of this is when you cannot speak more than three to four words without significant effort, and are breathing mostly through your mouth. Be sure to check with your doctor if you have a heart condition or some other disorder where exercising hard may be unsafe. See what your heart rate is immediately after exercising and then check it one minute after exercising.  Studies show that if it drops 12 or less beats per minute after one minute, you have a higher risk of death from heart disease. A decrease of 15-25 beats is the normal range and the higher the number, the fitter you are.  
 3. Stress Measure: 
Heart rate can be used as a fairly accurate marker of your body’s stress levels. I do frequent iPhone phone or finger pulse checks throughout the day to see where my heart rate is.  I’ve noticed my resting pulse jump over 20 points from 55 when I first get up in the quiet early morning hours to the 80s when I’m trying to get the kids to school on time. It’s a direct reminder for me throughout the day to slow down and breathe.
 4. Drinking Enough Water? 
 When you are dehydrated, your heart reacts by beating faster. So even if you are feeling relaxed, a higher pulse may mean you need to increase your fluid intake. Keep a water bottle by your side at all times. 
 5. Too Much Caffeine? 
Caffeine is a stimulant that can raise heart rate, so be sure to drink the least amount to keep you going. Try opting for black or green tea when you can, or even herbal if you don’t need the energy boost.  
Knowing your pulse can be a powerful measure of fitness, heart health and emotional health. Many people are walking around with high RHRs due to multiple factors including too much caffeine, dehydration, inactivity, and persistent stress. These extra heart beats over time can be taking years off your life. I recommend you not just measure your pulse, but try keeping a journal of what activities are leading to higher pulse rates. The iPhone app I mentioned above does this for you already. Would a morning walk or a 10 minute breathing session at lunch help? Maybe you shouldn’t take on that additional work project or school responsibility. Use this valuable data to make changes, set priorities, and help you lead a healthier life. Also keep in mind that certain medications can affect your heart rate and make this measure less reliable. You can discuss this with your doctor.
(courtesy: PAMF Bulletin)
This blog post is contributed by Ronesh (Ron) Sinha, M.D., Palo Alto Medical Foundation Internal Medicine. Dr. Sinha works closely with the South Asian community to help reduce heart disease and diabetes risk, and provides corporate health lectures to promote wellness in the workplace. Dr. Sinha holds clinical faculty positions at UCLA; Stanford University School of Medicine; and the UCSF School of Medicine. He teaches Stanford and UCSF medical students.


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