These three simple tests with a heart monitor could warn you of potential cardiac issues.

Most people who exercise are familiar with heart-rate monitoring but are unaware this data may be helpful in assessing cardiac risk, something everyone should be aware of when you consider rates of heart attacks in athletes are similar to those in sedentary individuals.

Three key heart rate measurements are important to know because they represent some of the most accurate evaluations for active and inactive people alike. These simple autonomic markers for cardiac stress — and mortality — are resting heart rate, heart-rate recovery and heart-rate variability.

From a practical standpoint, most users will not perform standard exercise stress tests in a laboratory, but simple self-assessments in a best-case scenario may help evaluate low, moderate and high risk for cardiac stress. Some still use the pulse test to estimate their heart rate, while others use the more-accurate and traditional chest strap monitors or other tracking devices. Multiple evaluations, perhaps a minimum of three, can be used to estimate risk. Ongoing evaluations can help assess improvement.

Regardless of the means of collection, data from these rates could potentially save your life.

Resting Heart Rate

Resting heart rate is the most easily obtained but it also is less precise in estimation of cardiac  and mortality risk. However, the following are numbers to consider:

Low risk — resting HR less than 70 bpm.

Moderate risk — resting HR between 70 and 75.

High risk — above 75. I recommend seeing a health practitioner if your resting rate is this high.

Heart Rate Recovery

Heart rate recovery is a measure of how quickly your heart rate normalizes following exertion. My preference is to measure heart data from an individual during exercise (after warming up and before the onset of a cool down), attaining an adequate training heart rate or MAF heart rate, then having the subject stop and immediately obtain the rate. Then again take the rate after one measured minute of inactivity while standing or maintaining other exercise positions. HRR is the difference between the two numbers.

Using this HRR the following categories offer an estimated risk:

Low risk — Decrease of over 30 bpm.*

Moderate risk — Decrease of 25 to 30.

High risk — Decrease of less than 25. I recommend seeing a health practitioner.

* A decrease of more than 30 beats is not necessarily better. In chronically overtrained athletes we sometimes see the extreme of autonomic imbalance where HRR decreases more than ~35 bpm, and resting HR is excessively low.

Heart Rate Variability

After the workout, an important first stage of recovery takes place in the cardiovascular system. This test can be performed following a hard workout while wearing a heart monitor or using some other accurate device. While standing still, the heart rate should be reduced by more than 12 beats in one minute. 

If your heart rate is not reduced by 12 beats per minute, it may indicate improper recovery from the exertion, stressing the heart and other systems. This could suggest a cardiac risk, and your doctor should be notified.

Many athletes and regular exercise enthusiasts know the value of heart rate data in their training programs but few realize these numbers can also be helpful in assessing cardiac risk. Resting heart rate, heart-rate recovery and heart-rate variability are three simple methods you can use to assess risk and they might even save your life.

Join the discussion 21 Comments

  • Cary Blackburn says:

    I’m surprised the Heart rate Recovery number is a fixed number and doesn’t relate to the individual MAF Rate.ie a 30 beat reduction is a much smaller percentage of a person with a high MAF i.e. someone younger. Does this therefore mean that you are at increased risk the older you get?

    • Cary:

      Yes, sadly. In effect, it means that as you age, you need to be relatively fitter than your younger self to have the same level of risk. This is why other articles Phil has written make the distinction between physiological and chronological aging. It is possible to be getting “older” because the clock keeps going, while still staying very healthy. If that’s what’s happening, your heart check tests will reflect that.

  • Dennis Lee says:

    Hello Phil: Can you please clarify the difference in heart rate reduction between Recovery and Variability? Both measurements are taken after one minute of inactivity, yet the yardsticks are quite different. Thank you.

  • Anthony Marsh says:

    With all due respect your description of heart rate variability does not sound correct. It actually sounds like you are describing heart rate recovery once again the only difference being the more than 12bpm number you reference. My understanding of heart rate variability relates to the gap between each heart beat and is something that requires more sophisticated equipment than a simple heart rate strap.

  • Scott Kale says:

    I’m curious about the comment regarding “resting HR excessively low.” Often times if I am having my blood pressure checked at the Dr’s office, the alarms go off because my HR will drop in the low 40’s. If I am very still and laying down, I can get readings in the 30’s. I would not say I am overtrained though. Is this an indication of some other possible issue I should be aware of? Thanks!

  • I can’t tell the difference between the HRR — which suggests a 30 BPM reduction one minute after ceasing activity as a low risk indicator — and then the HRV test as described, where a minimum 12 BPM reduction after one minute indicates lower cardiac risk.

    Don’t get why one should see a cardiac specialist if BPM reduction is less than 25 per the HRR; while per the HRV description, there’s not a cardiac concern unless it’s less than 12.

    Aside from that, I was under the impression that HRV was not a measure of heart rate per se, but instead the variability in time between heartbeats (where more variability is better). In that case, BPM wouldn’t really be the metric to be measured.

    Anything to help untangle my confusion would be appreciated.


  • Matt Hixson says:

    Hi, something about the HRV section doesn’t sound correct to me. Heart Rate Variability is the variation in time difference between heartbeats. Instead, this article sounds like HRV means your heart rate should drop by 12 beats per minute after exercise, which sounds like it’s conflated with the section above it talking about Heart Rate Recovery.

  • Ted says:

    Thank you for this article, it gets right to the heart of our issues!
    But, I don’t understand your description and method of measuring HRV. As you know HRV is a variance in time between heartbeats. Your method for HRV appears to be the very similar to your method for measuring HRR. Both are described as stopping exercise, standing still, and measuring the change in BPM at one minute after stopping. I have used a heart rate monitor in conjunction with an iPhone App that measure HRV times and gives a score. This score is then compared with My baseline HRV score taken over a number of days to establish a baseline. As a 63 yr/o athlete my HRV score is less than a 25yr/o of course, so i’m happy when my score is above my baseline, but I can’t tell you the time between beats and I don’t understand how in your method a drop of 12 beats is relevant to my HRV condition? Please clarify the section on HRV, Thanks!!
    I read everything you have to offer and appreciated your methods immensely and suggest to all my athletic friends they adopt your techniques ! I also wanted to give this article to a friend that had a severe Heart Attack a year ago, but I feel I need to get clarity on your HRV method before I can pass it on.
    Best regards

  • I’m confused what HRV is and why it is 12 beats when the test as described seems identical to HRR which requires 30 beats for a healthy score.
    I have a HRV ap which gives a 1 to 100 score but I’m not sure if this is related and what a healthy score is.

  • Suneil says:

    I am not clear on the difference between the 2nd and 3rd tests as described in this article. They both seem to be measuring recovery in a one minute period.

  • Brian says:

    Dr Maffetone,

    Could you explain the difference between the Heart Rate Recovery and Heart Rate Variability tests? In the first test, you run at a MAF pace and look for 30+ BPM drop in 60 seconds. In the second, you exercise hard, and look for a 12 BPM drop after stopping (I am unsure how long to wait after stopping). Thanks.

  • Andrzej says:

    Hi Phil,
    One question connected to your last article and that from August 5, 2015. Two years ago you wrote: “The resting heart rate assessment for active individuals — this includes cardiovascular and other disease risks:
    Up to 65 — low risk
    66-79 — moderate risk
    80 and above — high risk”
    Now, the numbers has changed? Could you explain the difference?
    Thanks and best regards from Poland.
    Thanks for a meeting with my son Lucas while you been in Sydney!

  • Jan Birkmyre says:

    I have to admit I am confused by your description of HRV, I have been using a measurement from these guys http://www.myithlete.com/ to measure HRV which they describe as “It is measured as the time gap between your heart beats that varies as you breathe in and out. Research evidence increasingly links high HRV to good health and a high level of fitness, whilst decreased HRV is linked to stress, fatigue and even burnout.”

    ie it is the variability in your heart rate as you breath – quite different to what you have described or perhaps I am confused?

  • Mark Hewitt says:

    Really appreciate your podcasts, books and articles. I have a query regarding the heart rate variability. I am missing something as waiting one minute after exercise is the same method to obtain HRR heart rate recovery, which should be around 30bpm, so how can HRV heart rate variability then be 12bpm by a similar method of measurement?

    I would appreciate it if you could help me understand this better as I was going to buy a Bluetooth chest belt and app to start measuring HRV.

    Best regards, Mark

  • Dr Alan Stangl says:

    I don’t fully grasp the difference between the heart rate recovery and the heart rate variability. Is it the intensity of the workout? Please clarify. Thanks

  • Andy Findlay says:

    HI Dr Maffetone,
    Thanks for the post. I’m confused about the difference between HRR and HRV.
    HRR is a measurement in decrease by a certain number of beats after one minute of activity. 30 BPM for low risk.
    HRV is a measurement in decrease by 12 beats after one minute of activity.
    HRR says it needs to be reduced by 30 BPM for low risk and HRV is suggesting 12 BPM.
    Please could you clarify.

  • D Nelson says:

    Can you please describe HRV in comparison to HRR more thouroughly. The article makes HRV sound like HRR.

  • Annika says:

    Please explain the third test in more detail.
    how long after exercise to perform?
    Doing nothing but standing?
    Thank you

  • D Nelson says:

    Can you please go into further detail comparing HRR and HRV. I get HRR but HRV description is confusing me.

  • Jorge Musa says:

    This is an excellent article and good tools to assess properly our athletes. But I need to clear up something. I do not see much difference between Resting Heart Rate and Heart Rate Variability test since both of them comes from being working out and stop suddenly…and in RHR the average is 30-bpm while HRV should drop 12-bpm, both in one minute.

    I am really interested on learning this since we trained hard with people that manage high normal life stress and trains many hours a week.
    Thanks for sharing your knowledge.

  • Eddie Urcadez says:


    I’m 54 years old, have been riding/racing for over 25 years. I now primarily race in Mountain bike Endurance event, 100+ miles, 10, 12, 24 hour events. I have been on a LCHF diet for over 4 years now. This has proven to be very beneficial to my racing and training. More recently, 8 months ago I started training using the MAF HR zone. 180-age. This as well has benefited my racing. My MAF periodic test have continued to improve. I definitely see my HR staying lower with effort compared to pre-MAF training. My resting HR has also decreased. However, I am now noticing edema, leg swelling everyday, as well as what feels to be inflammation throughout my body. My mileage has been relatively low for the last 2 months but training is consistent, but by no means over training. Following LCHF diet I noticed so many improvement as described in you books, quick recovery, weight loss, training for hours without food and relying on Fat for energy. Now, I’m seeing the reverse. let swelling, aching legs, some weight gain. Prior to following MAF I did more intensity, was leaner and felt stronger. I see the benefits from training at my MAF zone but am seeing a decrease in other said benefits. I have not increase my daily calories and have actually tried to decrease to see if that helps. It has not. I’m concerned about developing clots and other health concerns that may be indicative of my swollen legs. Any idea what could be happening? Thank you for your feedback. Eddie Urcadez

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