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Understanding Heart Rate and Why It’s Important

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Understanding Heart Rate and Why It’s Important


February is American Heart Month, with a focus on raising awareness and providing education about heart health, and preventing heart disease. One of the best indicators of heart health is heart rate—the number of times per minute that the heartbeats or contracts.

Why is heart rate important?
The heart’s function is important because it circulates oxygen and blood throughout the body. When the heart is not working properly, it can affect every other system in the body. Heart rate is fundamental to this process because the heart’s function is directly related to heart rate and stroke volume, which is the amount of blood that is pumped out per beat.

When it comes to your heart rate, you don’t want it too fast, too slow, or too erratic. Unless you’ve been exercising or exerting yourself, which can cause a rise in your heart rate, you are probably not aware of what is going on with your heart rate.

Normal resting heart rate
A “resting heart rate” is your normal heart rate when you are not exercising or otherwise exerting yourself. A normal heart rate for adults ranges from 60 to 100 beats per minute.

Your heart rate will vary within this normal range. It can increase with different activities such as body position (quickly going from sitting to standing for example), exercise, body temperature, and is sometimes based on emotions such as stress, anxiety, or fear.

You can easily measure your own heart rate. First, find your pulse by placing two fingers on the side of your neck or on the front of your wrist. Then count the number of beats for 60 seconds, and that is your resting heart rate.

Variations in heart rate
As mentioned, many things that are completely normal such as exercise or being excited or nervous can cause a change in your heart rate. Even drinking caffeine can raise your heart rate, as can being dehydrated.

A slower heart rate, also called bradycardia, is a heart rate that is less than 60 beats per minute. A slower heart rate may be perfectly normal or could signal a problem. Slower heart rates are common in professional athletes or others who are very physically fit, such as regular runners. But it can also be a sign of heart disease or a heart attack, an infection, an underactive thyroid, or too much potassium in the body.

A fast heart rate, called tachycardia, is a heart rate that is higher than 100 beats per minute. Fast heart rates can also be normal or may be an indicator of underlying disease. A fast heart rate is normal when exercising, when someone is very excited or nervous, or when consuming caffeine or other stimulants as well as certain medications. Pregnant women also typically have a higher heart rate. However, a fast heart rate can be associated with diseases such as heart disease, infections that cause fever, an overactive thyroid, anemia, low potassium levels, dehydration, asthma, or other breathing problems.

If you are worried about your heart rate or notice it is slower or faster than normal without an immediate explanation, you should always consult a doctor.

Target heart rate for exercise
You are probably most familiar with heart rate when it comes to exercise. Your target heart rate is the range where you want to be so you are not overexerting yourself nor are you not exercising hard enough.

Strenuous exercise will typically raise your heart rate to 70 to 80 percent of your maximum heart rate. To find your maximum heart rate, simply subtract your age from 220. For example, for someone who is 50-years-old, their maximum heart rate would be 170. Then multiply that number by 0.7 to 0.8 to determine the 70 to 80 percent range. That range would then be 119 to 136 for a 50-year-old person.

An easier way to monitor your heart rate when exercising is with a fitness tracking device. Exercise machines such as treadmills or stationary bikes also calculate heart rate, but be mindful that these rates are not always entirely accurate.

Remember that target heart rate is only a guide when it comes to exercise. You should also pay attention to how you feel. If your heart rate is really high and you are out of breath, you may be overexerting yourself. Or, if you are not feeling much exertion, you may need to increase your exercise intensity. Listen to your body and use your target heart rate as just one tool when exercising.

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