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Your heart rate, or pulse, is the number of times your heart beats per minute. When you are exercising or doing something strenuous, your muscle tissues need more oxygen to function, as such, this strains your heart by making it work harder which results in your heart rate going up.
When you are at rest, your heart rate goes down - this number would be your resting heart rate. Generally we accept a resting heart rate of between 60-100 BPM or beats per minute.
External and internal factors that affect our resting heart rate
- Temperature - when the temperature of your environment goes up, the heart pumps a little faster.
- Emotions – Emotions such as being stressed, anxious, extremely happy or sad, these fluctuations in the way you feel can also contribute to the rise of your resting heart rates.
- Body size - People who have a higher BMI or tend to be obese will see your resting heart rate higher than someone of a healthier weight.
- Medications: certain heart or blood pressure medications like beta-blockers, which are used to reduce blood pressure in hypertensive patients, may lower your heart rate.
- Physical fitness: It’s been proven that your resting heart rate is inversely related to physical fitness. Meaning the fitter you are, the lower the resting heart rate.
Studies linking heart rate with health
Resting heart rate and physical health
An article was published on April 2013 in HEART - an international cardiovascular disease journal - titled the “Copenhagen male study” It involved 2798 healthy middle aged men with no cardiovascular disease or diabetes and these subjects were followed up for a span of 16 years.
So what did they actually deduced from this 16 year research? They confirmed that resting heart rate was inversely related to physical fitness.
A high resting heart rate was associated with poorer physical fitness, higher blood pressure, higher total cholesterol and higher BMI.
They also realised that increasing resting heart rate was associated with increased risk of death: every 10 BPM increase in resting heart rate was associated with an average 16% increase in the risks of death.
Resting heart rate and heart diseases
Published in 2010 by the Women’s health initiative ( WHI ) on 129,135 postmenopausal women, has proven indication that a resting heart rate at the low normal 60-75 BPM offers some protection against heart attack.
When WHI researchers found that those with higher resting heart rates of more than 76 beats per minute were 26% more likely to have a heart attack or die as compared to those with the lowest resting heart rates of 62 or less.
What Resting heart rate means to us
Well it basically means that something as simple as measuring our heart rate can give us a rough idea on our own health. It also means that for better health and physical fitness, we should aim to reduce our resting heart rate.
Measuring your Resting Heart Rate
Take a seat, calm yourself down for about 2 minutes before doing the self test.
For the carotid pulse, it is felt at the neck. Feel for your Adam’s apple at the middle of your neck with two fingers as shown, then slowly move your fingers outwards from that point by about 1-2 inch till you feel the pulsations. The sensation is actually pretty strong and you can do this on either side of the neck.
For the radial pulse, this will be done by feeling your wrist. The radial pulse is felt at the wrist on the side of the thumb with two fingers. Run your fingers along the side of your thumb and rest your 2 fingers at the wrist location.
Count the number of pulsations in a minute - that will be your resting heart rate.
There is a plethora of wearable devices and off the shelf heart rate monitors in the market. The advantage of these wearables are that they have the ability to track your heart rate while exercising or at rest and even when you are sleeping. They also have the wonderful ability of showing your a graph of your heart rate throughout the whole day.
How to use your heart rate to achieve better fitness?
Whether it is through manual calculation, or through wearables, the key for one’s fitness is by the reduction of our resting heart rates. The more we move, the fitter we get and the lower we will bring our resting heart rate down.
If you have already been on a fitness journey for some time and looking to ascend to your next level so as to become even fitter, your heart rate can act as an effective indicator for you to achieve the different zones of intensity.
Calculate your maximal heart rate
The first step is to calculate your maximal heart rate. This maximal heart rate tends to vary with age.
There are two acceptable calculations :
- 220 - your age
- 208 - ( 0.7x your age )
Different zones of intensity
The American Heart Association offers a two-zone breakdown to simplify things for people who might be embarking on a new fitness regime:
- Moderate intensity: 50-70% of calculated maximum heart rate
- Vigorous intensity: 70-85% of calculated maximum heart rate
If you have been sedentary for a while and are beginning a new exercise program, first Check with your doctor, then start out in the moderate zone.
As you become fitter, you can start to do some training in the vigorous zone.
This process of heart beat measurement will definitely be very very difficult, if not impossible to achieve if you simply use the manual calculation method. There simply will not be an opportunity for you to place your fingers on your neck or wrist and calculate your heart beat at every turn.
As such, the most convenient way will be through wearables. As you input your initial data such as DOB, height weight, activity level etc into the app, all the corresponding details such as your personal, recommended intensity zones will be presented to you.
In real time, one would be able to view which zone of intensity he/she am currently residing in based on real time heart rate monitoring.
However at the end of the day, exercise is not about chasing the heart rate or to achieve a particular heart rate as an end point. It is about achieving a healthier and more beautiful you. It is about achieving a more energised state so that you are able to enjoy the finer things in life like running and playing with your kids, being energetic enough to spend time with them in the evening even after a hard day’s of work.
In essence - exercise for better health. Involve yourself in all sorts of exercise and mix and match different type of exercises.
For example, alternate running with weights training in the gym OR swimming with resistance band training.
By : Dr Chen Yiming
Family Physician, MBBS (Singapore), GDFM (NUS), GDFP Dermatology (NUS)
By : Alvin Ho
B (Eng), MBA, Certified Allied Healthcare/Fitness Professional (EIMS), Master Fitness Trainer / Fitness Nutrition, Resistance & Endurance Training Specialist (NFPT)