There’s a great deal of attention paid to blood pressure readings — for good reason, considering it’s a major indication of cardiovascular health — but if you’re trying to track your progress in terms of improving your overall wellness, you may want to consider also taking a look at your resting heart rate.
Blood pressure is the rate at which blood travels through the body via the circulatory system, rising with each heartbeat as blood is pushed from the heart into the arteries, and falling as the heart relaxes between beats.
Resting heart rate, also known as your pulse, is a measure of how many times your heart beats per minute, while you’re “at rest,” which means not actively exercising. The American Heart Association recommends getting an accurate reading by putting your finger on a pulse point like your wrist, the side of your neck or inside your elbow and counting the number of beats in 60 seconds.
According to the Mayo Clinic, a normal rate ranges from 60–100 beats per minute. Generally, a lower rate at rest indicates better heart function. For instance, a well-conditioned athlete may have a resting heart rate closer to 40 beats.
There are some non-lifestyle factors that go into your rate, like age, body position (it’s higher when you stand) and air temperature. But there are also plenty of changes you can make to begin bringing your resting heart rate down.
The top way to lower your resting heart rate is through regular exercise, because that makes your cardiovascular system more efficient, according to Dr. Robert Greenfield, medical director of non-invasive cardiology and cardiac rehabilitation at MemorialCare Heart & Vascular Institute at Orange Coast Medical Center.
“As you become better conditioned, your resting heart rate will start to lower, because your heart won’t have to work as hard at rest, thanks to a more efficient system,” he says.
Dealing with emotional stress is another way to get your heart health on track. The University of Rochester Medical Center notes that psychosocial factors like grief and depression can contribute to heart attack risk, and stress can elevate your chances of heart disease. Also, stress may lead to unhealthy behaviors like smoking, overeating, physical inactivity and drinking too much alcohol.
Losing weight also helps, because excess weight tends to cause the heart to work harder to supply the body with blood. Definitely try to cut down or quit smoking if you use tobacco products, since quitting tends to lower resting heart rates.
Resting heart rate is mostly a health marker that’s worth noticing as a sign of progress in terms of fitness, but there are a couple of instances where it may warrant getting checked out.
Consider a checkup if your resting heart rate is consistently high, or if you notice your heart rate doesn’t come down within a few minutes after intense exercise. The fitter you are, the faster it should drop to normal.
Another consideration is if you’re seeing significant or even incremental increases in your resting heart rate. According to a recent Swedish study, people with stable heart rates had a lower risk of heart disease, but those who saw increases were considered at higher risk.
That’s because an increase in resting heart rate may be a warning sign of a cardiovascular change, like higher blood pressure or early heart disease, according to study co-author Salim Bary Barywani, of the University of Gothenburg. Other reasons resting heart rate may trend upward include a poor reaction to medication, elevated thyroid hormone levels, anemia or an underlying infection.
What if your resting heart rate is on the lower end and then suddenly surges upward, but still stays within that normal range? See a doctor anyway, Barywani advises.
“That’s a worrying signal, even if you only go up by 10 beats per minute,” he says. “I would get that checked, especially if that increase tends to persist.”