What your heart rate says about your health

By Enyeribe Ejiogu

It is one little thing and so common in medical care that most people can relate with and easily recall: a person gets to the hospital for an outpatient visit, and while waiting to see the doctor, the nurse takes the temperature reading. Then the patient is asked to present either the right or left forearm, mostly the left arm – as it is on the same side as the heart. The nurse then places the tip of the forefinger at a spot on the inner surface of the wrist. The nurse keeps the finger in place while looking at a wrist watch and mentally counts the beats of the heart, which can be felt at that spot, for 15 seconds. Then the nurse multiplies the number of beats she counted by four. The figure from that simple mental arithmetic process is called pulse or heart rate.

The heart rate is the number of times the heart beats in a minute. No two people have the same exact heart rate at any point in time and it changes as a person gets older. The heart rate is a very important and simple indicator of health condition. It is so ordinary that almost 98 per cent of people do not reckon with it as to have a habit of regularly checking it and perhaps keeping a record of the reading. Understanding what the heart rate means for your health and knowing when the rate is okay contributes to your general wellbeing. Today, there are little digital devices worn on the writs that help you keep track of your heart rate. Even some digital blood pressure monitors designed for personal or home are also able to simultaneously read the heart rate. As you would see from image of the blood pressure on this page, the lowest figure (70) is the heart rate. Read more about heart rate…

Resting heart rate

This is the number of times your heart beats in a minute when you’re not active and your heart is not doing extra work to pump blood through your body. For example, in the morning when you have just woken up but still lying on the bed. You must at one time or the other observed you heart beating faster when suddenly wake up from a bad dream or scary dream, in which it was like you were being chased and miraculously escaped. It is now know that some medications like beta-blockers can slow your heartbeat and lower your resting heart rate.

Most healthy adults should have a resting heart rate between 60 and 100 beats a minute. In general, the more physically fit you are, the lower your heart rate will be. Athletes can have a normal resting heart rate in the 40s. A healthy one is a sign that your heart isn’t having to work too hard to circulate blood.

How to check it

You can feel your heart rate by putting your first two fingers on the inside of your wrist, the inside of your elbow, the side of your neck, or on the top of your foot. Once you find it, count how many beats you feel in 15 seconds, and multiply that number by four.

How to lower it

This can be as easy as simply relaxing — sit down, have a glass of water, or just take a few deep breaths. A healthier lifestyle, including getting at least 30 minutes of exercise a day, eating healthier, watching your weight, and cutting down alcohol, caffeine, and smoking can help, too. If that’s not enough, you might try to find ways to better handle stress, like tai chi, meditation, or mindfulness.

Arrhythmia (indicates a problem with your heart rate)

When your heart’s beating rhythm is off, that’s called an arrhythmia. There are four major types of arrhythmia.

• Tachycardia: when your heart beats too fast, usually more than 100 beats a minute;

• Bradycardia: when your heart beats too slowly, below 60 beats a minute (unless you’re an athlete)

• Supraventricular arrhythmia: arrhythmia that starts in your heart’s upper chambers

• Ventricular arrhythmia: arrhythmia that starts in your heart’s lower chambers

Causes of arrythmia

Several things can lead to arrhythmia. These include clogged or hardened arteries, high blood pressure, or issues with the heart’s valves. It also can be the result of trauma from a heart attack. It can happen as you recover from heart surgery, and if your electrolytes are out of balance. For example, if your body has too much or too little potassium.

Elevated heart rate (tachycardia)

A resting heart rate higher than 100 beats per minute happens most often in kids. It’s also more common in women. The primary causes of a fast heart rate include stress, smoking, or drinking too much alcohol, coffee, or other caffeinated drinks.

Low heart rate (bradycardia)

A heart rate lower than 60 beats per minute can be caused by an infection, a problem with your thyroid gland (hypothyroidism), a chemical imbalance in your blood, breathing problems while you sleep (obstructive sleep apnea), or inflammatory diseases like lupus. It also can be caused by a problem with how your heart developed before you were born.

Heart rate and exercise

When you work out, you want your heart rate to go up, but not too much. To find the right number, start by figuring out your maximum rate: subtract your age from 220. If you’re just starting a fitness regimen, your target should be about 50 per cent of your maximum heart rate.

If you already exercise regularly, it might be closer to 85 per cent. Some devices and machines, like a treadmill, keep track of your heart rate.

Other contributors

Outside conditions, like warm weather or humidity, can make your heart pump a little more blood. Extreme emotional highs and lows or feeling anxious can raise your heart rate, too. Standing up from a sitting position can also bring it up for a few seconds.

When to see your doctor

Call your doctor if you’re taking a medication that causes you to have fainting spells or dizziness. Also reach out if you notice that you often have a fast heartbeat or a low pulse. Depending on what’s going on with you, your doctor might change your medications, recommend a pacemaker to get your heart beating in the right rhythm, or suggest other things to prevent or manage your condition.

• Adapted from webmd.com