Your pulse, or heart rate, is the number of times your heart beats each minute. When at rest, a normal heart rate ranges between 60 and 100 beats per minute. While a pulse rate below 60 may be normal for some people, it can signal a medical crisis in others -- particularly if accompanied by symptoms such as weakness or dizziness.
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Your pulse can be felt by placing 2 fingers on the inside of your wrist, the side of your neck, the inside of your elbow or the top of your foot. Count the beats for 1 minute to determine your heart rate. This rate varies throughout the day, and is affected by your fitness and health. Your resting rate, with a usual range between 60 to 100, is captured when you are calm, sitting or lying down and relaxed. During the day your pulse may get faster due to activity, stress and even body position.
Low Rates in Active Bodies
People who are very active, including athletes, tend to have naturally lower resting pulse rates --even lower than 60. This is a reflection of a strong, efficient heart muscle that doesn't need to work as hard to do its job in maintaining a steady beat. So a low heart rate, in an absence of symptoms, doesn't necessarily signal a dangerous condition.
Bradycardia is the medical term that refers to a heart rate less than 60 beats per minute, according to the American Heart Association. Bradycardia may be caused by changes in the heart structure due to aging or heath conditions, or due to damage to the heart's electrical system. Medications such as beta-blockers or other digoxin, a heart medication, also act to slow pulse rate. A slow heart rate gets dangerous if the heart isn't able to pump enough blood to provide the body with necessary oxygen and nutrients.
If your pulse rate drops too low, you may feel lightheaded, dizzy, confused or very tired. Fainting is also a risk. In severe cases, cardiac arrest or a sudden loss of heart function may occur. If untreated, bradycardia can lead to chest pain, high or low blood pressure and heart failure. So if you have any of these symptoms, see your doctor. After assessing your symptoms, and after an examination and testing, your doctor can determine if your low pulse rate is at a dangerous level, and recommend a personalized treatment plan.
Reviewed by Kay Peck, MPH RD