Last updated on 23 February 2021
Unless you are medically trained, you will most likely find it hard to tell what is going on inside your body and even harder to ascertain if your heart is functioning at an optimal level. You can get started by taking your own pulse, and learn what your heart rate might be saying about your health.
You can also speak to a specialist if you've any concerns about your heart health.
How to calculate your resting heart rate?
To get you started, here’s how you measure your heart rate:
1. Place your index and 3rd fingers on your neck to the side of your windpipe. Alternatively, place 2 fingers between the bone and tendon over your radial artery which is located on the thumb side of your wrist.
2. When you feel your pulse, count the number of beats in 15 seconds. Multiply this number by 4 to calculate the number of beats in a minute.
To avoid miscalculating your heart rate, you are advised not to measure your heart rate within 1 – 2 hours after exercise or a stressful event, as your heart rate can stay elevated after strenuous activities. You should also wait at least an hour after consuming caffeine, which can cause palpitations and make your heart rate rise.
What is a normal heart rate?
When we talk about your heart rate, we are actually referring to your resting heart rate. Medically defined as the ‘lowest amount of blood you need when you are not exercising’, your resting heart rate is the rate at which your heart is pumping the minimum amount of blood you require to go about your day-to-day activities.
The normal resting heart rate for older children and adults (aged 10 and above) is 60 – 100 beats per minute (bpm). Children (aged 5 – 6) have a normal resting heart rate of 75 – 115 bpm. It is natural for heart rates to get progressively slower through childhood towards adolescence. To break it down further, these are normal ranges for resting heart rates according to age:
||Normal heart rate (bpm)
|< 1 month
||70 – 190
|1 – 11 months
||80 – 169
|1 – 2 years
||80 – 130
|3 – 4 years
||80 – 120
|5 – 6 years
||75 – 115
|7 – 9 years
||70 – 110
|10 – 18 years
||60 – 90
|≥ 18 years
||55 – 80
For well-trained athletes, their resting heart rate can average 40 – 60 bpm.
Many factors influence resting heart rate. Genes play a role. Ageing tends to speed it up while regular exercise tends to slow it down. Stress, medication, and medical conditions also influence your heart rate.
The normal heart rate undergoes healthy variation in response to changes in body conditions as well. This includes exercise, body temperature, body position such as standing up too quickly, and emotions such as anxiety and arousal.
If your resting heart rate does not fall within the normal range as listed above, you may want to check if it could be a sign of a medical condition?
When your heart rate is irregular
An abnormal heart beat is medically known as arrhythmia. It does not necessarily mean your heart is beating too fast or too slow, it just means your heart is out of its normal rhythm.
The heart normally beats in regular, synchronised time with an internal ‘electrical circuit’ controlling the rhythm. Abnormalities in this circuit can cause fast, slow or irregular heart rhythms.
Arrhythmias can be an emergency or completely harmless. In fact, you could experience irregular heartbeat even if your heart is healthy. It could happen if you have:
- Heart disease
- Imbalance of electrolytes (such as sodium or potassium) in your blood
- Changes in your heart muscle or structure of your heart
- Injury from a heart attack
- Healing process after heart surgery
When your heart beats too fast
Doctors call it tachycardia when your heart beats very fast for a reason other than exercise, high fever or stress. Under these conditions, the heart still works normally to pump blood through the body for most people.
During an episode of tachycardia, the heart beats at least 100 beats a minute and may reach 300 beats a minute. These episodes may start and end quickly, and you may not even notice any symptoms at all. The condition only becomes a problem when it happens often, lasts too long, or causes symptoms such as a pounding pulse, dizziness, shortness of breath, fainting spells, chest pain or tightness.
If you notice your resting heart rate increasing, it is a sign worth watching. A high resting heart rate can indicate the start and progression of heart disease.
How can I lower my heart rate?
An increased heart rate can be lowered to a healthy rate. The following are some of the ways you can do this:
- Exercise. Physical activity can help to strengthen your heart. Going on a walk, cycling, or doing yoga can help to train your heart to be more efficient so that it doesn’t work as hard while you’re resting.
- Quit smoking. Smoking causes the narrowing of arteries and veins, resulting in a higher heart rate. By quitting smoking, your heart rate can be brought down to a healthier level.
- Relax. When you are stressed, certain hormones race through your blood, causing your heart rate to increase. Activities that promote a restful state such as meditation and yoga can help to lower stress levels and heart rate over time.
If these methods don’t work, consult a heart specialist for advice on recommended medications or other medical treatment for your condition.
When your heart beats too slow
On the other hand, when your resting heart rate is very slow, doctors call this bradycardia. For most people, a heart rate of 60 – 100 bpm while at rest is normal. If your heart beats less than 60 times a minute, it is slower than normal.
For some people, a slow heart rate does not cause any problems. It can be a sign of being very fit. In other people, bradycardia is a sign that the heart may not be pumping enough blood to meet the body’s needs. Some symptoms include dizziness, fainting spells, shortness of breath or increasing difficulty in exercising, tiredness, chest pain or a pounding in your chest.
Bradycardia can be caused by changes in the heart as a result of ageing, heart diseases such as coronary artery disease or heart attack, low thyroid levels or the consumption of medication for treating heart problems or high blood pressures.
Crossing into the danger zone?
Now we know too fast or too slow a heart rate may or may not indicate underlying problems. How then should you determine when your heart rate is entering a dangerous zone?
Depending on your age, the human heart can normally beat up to 220 times per minute, and that maximum can only be attained by a young child. If you want to determine your maximum heart rate, subtract your age from 220. You’d notice that your maximum heart rate declines with age.
It is hard to ascertain when your heart rate is crossing into the danger zone but if you notice anything unusual about your heart activity or if you develop any of the symptoms described above, consult your doctor early for a check-up or go for a heart screening test.
Article reviewed by Dr Leslie Tay, cardiologist at Mount Elizabeth Hospital
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