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.

27 Comments

  • dale smith says:

    Would you expect a resting heart rate to be higher during periods of strength training?
    I ask because, during my aerobic phase, my RHR was low 40s ( usually 3am in the morning, but also during periods of inactivity during the day).
    However, I have started my strength phase, and after a week, my RHR is now up to low 50s. ( again, 3am in the morning )

    Is this usual? I have only been accuratly measuring my heart rate for a couple of months so I dont have any historic data from before my 3 month aerobic phase
    Best Regards

  • Ally says:

    How long does it generally take for a person’s resting heart rate do decrease by a few beats per minute? For example; if they’re doing between 150-200 minutes of training at their MAF heart rate per week, would they see a significant drop in three to four months?

    Love all the resources on this site, they helped me drastically overhaul my training for the better!

  • Derek woodman says:

    Hi, my heart rate is 57 bpm first thing in the morning as soon as I wake up and will increase to about 62 -70 during the day I am 73 years old.

  • Barbara Bruckert says:

    Hi,
    I have a question about the 180-formula. Why doesn’t it consider resting HR? The second part of the formula where your overall fitness level is considered for the 5 or so bpm adjustment hardly covers the difference between a resting HR of 45 and one of 65, for an equally fit athlete.
    Can you explain the theory behind this omission of resting HR?
    Thank you,
    Barbara

    • Barbara:

      Great question!

      The quickest way to answer is that an athlete with a RHR of 65 cannot be equally fit to an “identical” athlete with a RHR of 45. They may seem equally fit superficially: they might be equally fast, for example. But upon closer examination, you’ll probably find that the athlete with a RHR of 45 easily holds down a much more demanding job, balances childcare with family, has much higher activity levels throughout the day, recovers faster, and is more consistent in their race times.

      Why is this?

      Think of “resting” as an athletic event—how powerful of a “rester” you are. If your resting heart rate is 45 BPM, it means that resting is 20 BPM “easier” for you than for someone whose RHR is 65 BPM. So, while different people have different “normal” resting HRs, what it really means is that the person with a higher RHR has a comparatively harder time resting than the person with the lower RHR. So they are less tolerant to any kind of stress (exercise, work, etc).

      So the reason that the 180-Formula numbers don’t really shift with RHR is because, as someone gets fitter, their “normal” RHR will drop. Why? Because in part, they are a better “rester.” Take someone with a RHR of 65 and a MAF HR of 150. They have an aerobic HR range of 85 BPM (150-65). If that same person gets fitter, their resting HR might drop 10 BPM. That would make them have an aerobic HR range of 95 BPM. Effectively, this means that from a standstill, they have a MAF HR that is 10 BPM “higher” than they used to.

      Put another way, that person who “naturally” has a RHR of 45 actually doesn’t. If you put them into a much hotter environment (increasing the metabolic demand), and you have them measured by someone who has never seen them before, they’ll conclude that this person “naturally” has a RHR of 65. So the RHR is always contingent on how much it takes for the body to be able to rest and recover effectively relative to the demands of the environment. (So, for a person with a “natural” RHR of 45 BPM, it is the equivalent of 20 BPM “harder” to rest in an environment that is, say, 20 degrees fahrenheit hotter).

  • Todd says:

    I’m an elite triathlete in good health but notice that my morning heart (first wake up) rate is consistently higher (5-10 bpm) than evening. Any thoughts as to what may be going on?

    • Todd:

      Depending on other factors, it may or may not be an indicator of early-stage overtraining. The way that the body’s hormonal periods work is that towards the end of the day, the fat-burning systems (which suppress the stress response and lower the heart rate) are more active. This, incidentally, is why people with chronic fatigue tend to have the most energy after 5 PM.

      So what could be happening is that this is a very early sign that you may experience greater symptoms of overtraining a month or two down the line. As I said, this may or may not be a sign. A good way to gather more data is to do a MAF test as soon as possible, and re-testing a month from now. If your speed in the second test shows a drop, then you know that your body has responded negatively to major stressors in your life (the most likely culprit is training, but also lack of sleep, bad nutrition, poor nutrient timing, poor sunlight exposure, etc).

  • Hillary says:

    My heart rate when I first wake up in the morning is higher than when I’m resting later in the day. Why might that be? It’s normally 65-67 when I first wake up, and 53-56 when resting during the evening.

    Thanks,
    Hillary

  • Vinicius Motta says:

    any suggestion for a good heart rate monitor? what about EKG-accurate readings without a constricting chest strap monitors, are they good? would you suggest any?
    Thankjs

    • Vinicius:

      If chest-strap monitors are constricting for you, perhaps try loosening the strap. I’m always able to breathe completely easily with how I wear my monitor and can barely feel it on my chest. That said, EKG accurate readings is what we want, so as long as you find a monitor that works for you. One of my go-to monitors is the Scosche Rhythm+

  • John says:

    Hi does the bpm of a resting heart rate influence the 180 formula?

    My resting heart rate is 55 and I am 42 years old.

    Do I still simply follow the 180-age plus or minus a bit according to the technique?

    Surely I will be working myself harder than someone of the same age with a resting heart rate of 65 and therefore effect when the aerobic threshold is reached?

    Thanks

    john

    • John:

      Resting heart rate does not affect the 180-Formula. While your metabolism will be putting out more power than someone with a resting heart rate of 65, you will not be “working yourself harder.” The shift between aerobic and anaerobic metabolism happens not directly because of an increase in power output, but rather because of an increase in stress hormones. (Power output is implicated in this, but for example if you are aerobically fit enough that you can have a huge power output at a very low effort, stress hormone levels won’t rise and you’ll stay aerobic).

      Regardless of what your resting heart rate is, you’re going to hit that stress hormone threshold at your MAF HR. If your body’s resting heart rate drops, it means that your heart is capable of pumping all the blood the body needs with very, very few stress hormones.

      So, think of it this way: a low resting heart rate doesn’t mean that you’re working relatively harder during exercise; it means that you’re working relatively less during rest.

  • Chris says:

    Thanks Ivan.
    From your response, it would seem that if, for example, one has a 1-minute recovery HR of 30bpm, and it suddenly drops to 20bpm, that could be interpreted as a sign of overtraining.

    On that same track, is there a measurement of “a good recovery heart rate”, or would that be based on multiple individual factors?

    Mine is typically 20 – 30 bp recovery when training is done at 80% – 90%of MHR (with MHR of 182), which I feel is pretty good given so many factors against me. Just curious.

    • Chris says:

      That 20 – 30 recovery is just one minute of recovery.

    • Chris:

      I wouldn’t chalk a drop that small up to overtraining or even (non-functional) overreaching. Typically, what it means is that your power base is growing in power relative to your aerobic base, and it’s time to go back to aerobic training for a few weeks—just part of the normal power/endurance training cycle. Keep that up for a week and you’ll be overreaching (cause your 1 minute recovery HR will go from 20 below to 10 below). Keep that up for a month and you’ll be overtraining.

      About your final question, check out this article. It’s got all the info you need.

  • Chris says:

    Fascinating piece, thank you. So much of what is said on this blog is what I have read for a couple of decades, due to my background.

    My question is around Recovery Heart Rate, and what sort of an indicator of health that is (as opposed to an indicator of fitness). My resting HR is too high throughout the day, and that is being worked on with doctor and exercise. I’m just curious if Phil uses the Recovery HR in any way?
    Thanks

    • Chris:

      Yes, generally speaking. It is a much finer measure of aerobic function than Resting Heart Rate ever could be. Basically, a good recovery heart rate tells you that your aerobic system is quite capable of absorbing the stress of the exercise you just did (to make a long story short). It tells you whether your aerobic system is exhausted/sufficiently powerful relative to the exercise you ask your body to do.

  • Damien says:

    Hi Phil, thanks for all the great info. It becomes rare to find health websites/blogs that are not just quoting and repeating each other but with actually new content.

    Is there a lower limit or lower “trend” that one should worry about ? I’ve always had a low HR (my dad too, so it must be genetic). It used to be around 45 about 6 years ago before I got into endurance sports (~age 20), now it has decreased to 30-32 when I wake up. It’s been decreasing consistently, and my day-to-day measurements are typically very stable too.

    • Damien:

      Generally speaking, it’s very difficult to attribute a particular heart rate to genetic factors. Furthermore, genetics may not be at play in the heart rate itself. For example, your family may have an aerobic system that is particularly powerful, which means that the heart has to work comparatively less, since, say, you can carry more oxygen per unit of blood. So the heart rate can be comparatively lower. Or, you can also have a very high stroke volume, meaning that your heart is capable of pumping more blood per beat, meaning that again, it doesn’t have to work as hard.

      It’s very difficult to know whether this is a problem with the heart (or rather, the parts of the nervous system that control the heart) because all of the factors that can contribute to lowering heart rate, such as the ones mentioned above. The best way to know whether there is a medically important preexisting condition (genetic or not) is to visit a cardiologist and get all the relevant tests done.

      I really can’t tell you more than that, except that the evidence you present doesn’t seem to show a problem.

  • Adam Berg says:

    Can this heart rate method apply to crossfit workouts? Rest when your heart rate is above 180-age ? Or does this only apply to long distance running

  • mehmet says:

    According to my experience;
    For measurements “during the day”; although all conditions like “Sit for 5 minutes in a quiet, comfortable room with legs uncrossed etc.” have been met, having a lunch before measurement affects the result widely.

  • James says:

    Really good article. I’m probably a good example of this – I used to do a lot of Crossfit style training, lots of intervals, weight training etc, didn’t do much ‘true’ aerobic exercise except for general easy walking, which looking back wasn’t enough to balance out all of the anaerobic work I was doing. My resting heart rate at this time was high (looking back I could ‘feel’ it at the time, but I put that down to ‘just’ being stressed) and when I got a HR monitor and checked it it was in the low 70s which I thought was high for someone who did so many hard workouts.

    14 months later after following the 180 formula and doing a lot less high intensity training (probably only a few times per month now) it is down to about 51-56, depending on what sort of day I have had. I think this is a reasonable number for someone my age (26) and who doesn’t handle stress that well – although better now than in the past.

  • Andy says:

    I wear a wrist based HRM through the night and I notice that my lowest heart rate usually occurs around 4am and is around 54-56bpm. My heart rate on waking in the morning (using your technique described above) is around 60-65bpm.

    Is the 4am recording a truer indicator? Ie is testing HR truly the lowest bpm recorded throughout the day/night?

    Thanks – Andy

    • Andy:

      It really depends. As long as you are consistent in using one or the other, it’s perfectly fine. Just about everyone uses their waking heart rate as their resting heart rate. As far as I know, you don’t get any more benefit by using a different one (unless you have some very specific medical condition that requires you to know it).

  • Praveen says:

    Very well said . Nice information. I am a devotee of yours phil

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