If you have a smartwatch or a fitness tracker, you will have noticed that it comes with a heart rate monitor and that your health stats include a measure of your ‘resting heart rate (RHR). You might also have noticed that your heart rate shoots up when you do cardio, but not so much when you strength train.
In this post, we are going to explain what your heart rate is, why it is important, which numbers are good and which are warnings signs, and encourage you to take more notice of this important health marker.
What is your heart rate?
Your heart rate is essentially the number of times that your heart beats per minute. There are two measures of your heart rate that you need to keep an eye on – your RHR and your exercising heart rate. If you wear a smartwatch or activity tracker, it will give you a reasonably accurate reading of both of these numbers, especially if you wear it overnight as this is when your heart is truly ‘at rest’.
Why is it important to measure heart rate during exercise
The importance of your heart rate goes back to the fact that the heart is a muscle, and it has to contract to pump blood around the body. The stronger your heart is, the more efficient each pump is, thus a lower RHR indicates a healthy heart.
A healthy RHR – i.e. when you are lying down and not expending any extra energy – is between 60-100bpm in an adult. If you are slim or very active, you might have an even lower RHR. This is known as bradycardia, and it is nothing to worry about.
The second important measure of your heart rate is your exercising heart rate.
Cardiovascular exercise (running, cycling, dancing etc.) is that which puts a demand on the body for oxygen-rich blood, this gets the heart pumping.
Each pump is like a rep for the heart, thus cardio essentially conditions this important organ. Regularly engaging in cardio exercise is a well-known way of protecting your long-term health.
This strikes the right balance between making your heart work hard, thereby training it as a muscle, and not overworking it and potentially putting your health in danger. A good rule of thumb is to take your RHR and add 130-150bpm.
Training beyond this point is not advised because it puts undue stress on the heart and can lead to serious complications, including the risk of sudden death.
Avoid entering the danger zone by tuning into your body while exercising: do you feel sick? Do you feel extremely uncomfortable? Are you gasping for breath? None of these feelings is a normal part of the exercise. If you become unwell, take a step back from what you are doing and let yourself recover. Overtraining is not something to be proud of, it is dangerous.
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How to lower your RHR
Your RHR is a marker for heart health.
If you are concerned that yours is at the higher end of the healthy range or even above it, you can make some lifestyle changes to bring it down. First and foremost, get your heart rate into the exercise zone for 150 mins every week.
There is no need to obsessively check your wrist to see where your heart rate is at, just aim to do 150 minutes of cardio exercise a week and your body will take care of the rest.
If you are exercising regularly and still have a high RHR, consider addressing the following lifestyle factors:
- Weight – are you a healthy weight for your height?
- Caffeine – limit your caffeine intake to 2 cups of tea, coffee, caffeinated soft drinks, etc. per day
- Hydrate – drink 2-3 litres of water a day
- Salt – reduce the amount of salt you add to food, cut down on processed foods and convenience foods
- Alcohol – track your RHR the day after alcohol consumption, it makes a difference! Cut down and make sure to hydrate well when you drink
How accurate are heart rate trackers?
Wearable fitness tech is a fairly accurate way to track your RHR and will give you a good idea of your heart health. However, readings become less accurate as your heart rate increases, thus using them to judge the intensity of your workout can lead to problems.
Do not fall into the trap of having your heart rate dictate your activity.
Given that there is room for error in the numbers, you could end up overexercising because you wrongly believe that your heart rate needs to be higher, when in fact you are already training at your safe maximum. By all means, look at the data, but remember that the best measure of how intense your workout was is how you feel in yourself.