Resting Heart Rate

Know your numbers and what they really mean in relation to fitness and health.

Resting heart rate is an easily measurable parameter of overall health and fitness. This surprisingly simple measurement is very meaningful for everyone, not just for athletes or those who are ill.

To get the most out of this measurement, it’s important to accurately assess the resting heart rate since errors are easily obtained. Factors that influence it include the resting period before measurement, environmental conditions, methods of measurement (including how and where the pulse rate is taken), the number of readings, duration of measurement, position of the body, and others. While this appears to make the simple resting heart rate more complicated, without an accurate measure its value is limited or, even worse, misleading. The best way to measure resting heart rate is with a heart-rate monitor.

There is no “normal” resting heart rate for humans. Each individual does have a number that is “usual” for him or her. The rate is regulated by the activity of the brain (the autonomic nervous system), the hormonal system and cardiovascular fitness.

Under resting conditions, the average adult human heart beats at about 70 beats per minutes (bpm), and the heart rate tends to gradually decrease with age. Women generally have a rate 3- to 7-bpm higher than men on average.

In a well-trained athlete, the pulse may be as low as the mid- or upper-30s, although many healthy athletes are in the 50s and 60s. VO2max is also associated with resting heart rate (along with one’s maximum heart rate). However, chronic overtraining can cause autonomic imbalance resulting in an abnormally lower rate. (See Heart Rate Variability.)

What’s more important is how it changes over time. As you progress through your healthy training routine using the 180 Formula, the pulse will gradually get lower. Measuring it each morning is a very important evaluation, one that can help you monitor health and fitness progress. Through regular assessment, individual variation can be monitored accurately. As you progress, a downward trend should be observed; however, if your resting heart rate is usually around 60, then suddenly it trends upward and settles in the mid- to high-60s, this is a red flag.

Studies show that an elevation of just 5 bpm in resting heart rate can increase the risk of mortality by 17 percent. Studies show that resting heart rates above 80 bpm are significantly associated with increased cardiovascular risk. Elevated resting heart rate is also associated with chronic inflammation as a marker related to subclinical chronic disease states, and is a risk factor for mortality independent of physical fitness and other major cardiovascular risk factors. Like the MAF Test, resting heart rate can warn you of a pending problem.

With proper exercise comes improved aerobic function, better circulation and increased efficiency of the heart, lungs and blood vessels. This is reflected over time as a decrease in resting heart rate.

Your normal heart rate in the morning will often vary slightly. It should, however, be within about three or four beats on consecutive days. A change from one day to another above is could be an indication some type of stress is affecting you. It may signal an oncoming cold or flu, thinking about a stressful situation, poor eating choices, or too lengthy or intense workouts the previous days. Other factors that alter normal heart rate include medication, caffeine, stress, or competition the previous days, infection, allergies and asthma.

The word “resting” is an important one, and it means obtaining the lowest heart rate in the course of a day. This usually is best done in the morning upon awakening using a heart-rate monitor for 30 seconds and recording the lowest number. Sitting heart rates are often 1-2 beats higher than those taken lying down.

Following are two good options for measuring resting heart rate.

Upon awakening (most accurate):

  • Strap on your heart monitor.
  • Sit or lie quietly, obtain the heart rate for 30 seconds and record the lowest number.
  • If you must use the bathroom or walk around first, sit or lie quietly for 5 full minutes before recording your heart rate.
  • It’s important to perform the same routine each time you record the rate, especially using the same heart monitor and same position.

During the day:

  • Sit for 5 minutes in a quiet, comfortable room with legs uncrossed, without talking; or lie comfortably on your back for 5 minutes following the same factors.
  • Measure the heart rate over a period of 30 seconds, record lowest number.
  • Obtain two separate measurements.

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
The most important recommendation is to accurately monitor resting heart rates with some regularity. Performing the test each day can provide more data, which, when used properly, can help you accurately monitor health and fitness.