You may have heard your doctor or nurse mention the need to check your "vital signs." They're referring to your temperature, pulse or heart rate, and the number of breaths you take per minute. These measurements are called vital because they represent the state of your body at any one moment.
Heart rate, like other measurements, varies with your age, physical health, activity, air temperature, weight, medications and presence of absence of stress. If you live at sea level and visit high altitudes, your heart rate can change to help compensate for the amount of oxygen present in the air. Your heart rate is constantly fluctuating -- much like your blood pressure, based on the needs of your body at any given moment. However, if you monitor your heart rate over time, you can see a trend that can be useful, the Mayo Clinic says.
According to Edward R. Laskowski, M.D., at the Mayo Clinic, the normal resting heart rate of an adult ranges between 60 to 100 beats per minute. If you're a trained athlete, your normal resting heart rate may be closer to 40 beats per minute. A lower heart rate means your heart is able to function efficiently. This is usually a sign of cardiovascular fitness. Remember, resting heart rates are measured when you aren't actively moving. If you're resting but also stressed, your heart rate is likely higher.
Heart Rate Determination
It's easy to measure your resting heart rate without additional equipment, other than a watch or clock with a second hand. Special heart rate monitors can be worn when you exercise. These fairly sophisticated devices can record your heart rate and other vital signs, can store them, and some can even send the measurements to your personal computer. If you want to measure your resting heart rate, take your pulse. To do this, the Mayo Clinic says, sit comfortably with your palm facing up and resting on a flat surface. Put two fingers on your wrist below your thumb. You can feel your heart beating. Time the beats for 10 seconds by your watch or clock. Then multiply the number of beats by six. This is your resting heart rate per minute.
Abnormal Heart Rate
Because there are so many variables that can affect your heart rate, what's normal for you may not be normal for another person. If you have cardiac disease and your heart rate is very low, it may signal a problem. Contrast this with the same heart rate measurement that is desirably low in a trained athlete. If you aren't physically fit and if your resting heart rate is usually greater than 100 beats per minute, it could signal the presence of tachycardia or rapid heart rate, the Mayo Clinic says. If your resting rate is usually below 60 beats per minute, it may represent a condition called bradycardia or slow heart rate. If your heart rate is slow or elevated and you have other symptoms such as dizziness, a feeling of lightheartedness, vertigo, fainting -- or if you can't catch your breath -- contact your health care provider.
You're at more risk for cardiac disease of any kind including abnormal heart rate if you smoke, are overweight, have diabetes, high cholesterol and high blood pressure. Other important factors include a lack of exercise, your family medical history and whether you belong to certain ethnic or cultural groups that have higher rates of cardiac disease. Because of all the heart rate measurement variables, if you're concerned with your numbers, see your doctor. If your rates are abnormal, many treatment options can make you feel better and less anxious. Your doctor can determine whether your bad heart rate is a concern and suggest the best approach.