You may expect an elevated heart rate when you're exercising, but if you feel like your heart is beating out of your chest for no reason, well, that can be concerning.
Some causes of a high resting heart rate are relatively harmless, while others are potentially life-threatening and require medical attention.
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Here, Nikolaos A. Diakos, MD, PhD, interventional cardiologist at The Texas Heart Institute, explains what causes a high resting heart rate, offers tips on how to lower your heart rate immediately and notes when you should see a doctor.
What Causes a High Resting Heart Rate?
"The resting heart rate represents how many times your heart beats every minute when you are not doing any kind of activity," Dr. Diakos says. Think: When you're sitting on the couch, for example. This is different from your sleeping heart rate (which may be lower) and your heart rate while running or doing other exercise (which will be higher).
A normal resting heart rate can vary from person to person but usually ranges between 60 and 100 beats per minute for adults, per the Mayo Clinic. (A normal resting heart rate in children is different.) That's a pretty wide range, but what's healthy for you depends on a few factors, including your age, fitness level and whether you're living with any chronic illnesses or taking medications.
A high resting heart rate (one that's over 100 beats per minute) can be an indication of an underlying problem or condition. The medical term for a heartbeat above 100 beats a minute is "tachycardia."
Sometimes an elevated heart rate is caused by a physiologic response to external stimuli, Dr. Diakos says, such as when you're scared, anxious or stressed. Other causes include:
- Sleep deprivation
- Low body oxygen
- Chronic lung disease
- Lung clot
- Heart failure
- Thyroid disorders
- Exposure to stimulants such as nicotine, caffeine or decongestants
- Abrupt withdrawal from medications such as beta blockers
If your high heart rate occurs along with chest pain or discomfort, shortness of breath, lightheadedness or pain in the jaw, neck, back, arm or shoulder, call 911 or go to the nearest hospital's emergency department, as you may be having a heart attack.
Ways to Immediately Lower Your Heart Rate
In some cases, people with tachycardia are taught physical strategies to quickly lower their heart rate, per the Mayo Clinic. These are called vagal maneuvers that include:
- Bearing down as if having a bowel movement
- Placing an ice pack or splashing cold water on your face
These movements affect the vagus nerve — the longest nerve in the body, which runs between your brain and your gut — and help control the heartbeat. These maneuvers should only be attempted if your doctor has recommended them.
In non-emergency situations — such as when you're stressed or anxious — there are several strategies you can use to lower a high heart rate or stop heart palpitations, Dr. Diakos says.
He recommends these relaxation techniques to lower the heart rate and alleviate stress:
- Deep breathing
One easy deep-breathing exercise you can do anytime you feel your heart rate rising is the box breathing technique:
- Inhale slowly for four seconds.
- Hold your breath for four seconds.
- Exhale slowly for four seconds.
- Pause for four seconds, then repeat.
How to Lower Your Heart Rate Over Time
A low resting heart rate can be a good marker of cardiovascular fitness, Dr. Diakos explains. "People with good cardiovascular fitness, such as athletes, tend to have lower resting heart rates."
Lowering your heart rate over time can be achieved by making lifestyle changes and building consistent healthy habits. Dr. Diakos recommends these tips to reduce your resting heart rate:
1. Exercise Regularly
It's no surprise that a consistent exercise routine will bring you health and fitness benefits, one of them including improved heart health. Dr. Diakos suggests doing 30 to 40 minutes of aerobic exercise three to four days a week to help reduce your resting heart rate.
This is in line with the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, which recommend adults get at least 150 minutes or moderate aerobic exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous cardio each week (plus two days of strength-training).
According to Harvard Health Publishing, exercise strengthens the heart muscle, allowing it to pump more blood with each heartbeat. As more oxygen gets delivered to the muscles, the heart can beat fewer times while at rest than it would in a less physically fit person.
2. Avoid Stimulants
Popular stimulants like caffeine and tobacco can easily increase your heart rate (sorry, coffee), and should be avoided if you're trying to keep you heart rate low. Cutting back on them or eliminating them from your life entirely can help lower your heart rate over time, per the Cleveland Clinic.
If going cold turkey is too much too soon, try scaling back on your weekly consumption and see if there's a difference in your heart rate.
3. Improve Your Sleep Habits
The amount of rest you give your body can also have an effect on the way your heart functions. According to the Sleep Foundation, sleep is the time for our bodies to recuperate from the exertion of waking hours.
Sleep is when the heart rate slows down and blood pressure lowers. Without proper sleep, this can cause the heart rate to rise, and other concerns like an irregular heartbeat or heart palpitations.
Adults should aim to sleep at least seven hours each night, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
If you struggle with sleep, try natural remedies for insomnia like sticking to a consistent bedtime and wake-up time (even on the weekends), getting regular exercise, doing relaxing activities near bedtime like showering or reading a book, and creating a sleep-friendly bedroom that's cool, dark and quiet.
4. Manage Stress Levels
In many cases, stressful situations are inevitable. Life happens and stress does too, but managing stress levels can have a direct effect on your heart rate.
According to the American Heart Association, chronic stress is associated with potentially harmful responses by our bodies, including irregular heart rate and rhythm, high blood pressure and reduced blood flow to the heart.
If you're dealing with chronic stress, stress-management strategies and relaxation should be considered to lower your heart rate over time and improve your overall health. These might include, per the AHA:
- Getting regular exercise
- Making time for social activities
- Getting enough sleep
- Finding a stimulating hobby you enjoy
- Maintaining a positive attitude
- Listening to music or doing other activities that relax you
When to See a Doctor
While there are many ways to lower your heart rate on your own, in some cases it's better to seek medical attention. A dangerously high heart rate is when it's consistently above 100 beats per minute when not doing strenuous activity, per the Cleveland Clinic.
"We recommend seeing a doctor when the resting heart rate is persistently high (above 100 beats per minute) or persistently low ( less than 60 beats per minute) without being a trained athlete," Dr. Diakos says.
You should also see a doctor if your heart rate is unusually high or low and you experience fainting.
A doctor (likely a cardiologist) can help you get to the bottom of your irregular heart rate and recommend techniques or medication to improve it.
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Is A Low Heart Rate Worrisome?"
- Cleveland Clinic: " How to Lower Your Heart Rate"
- Sleep Foundation: "How Sleep Deprivation Affects Your Heart"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "How Much Sleep Do I Need?"
- American Heart Association: "Stress and Heart Health"
- Cleveland Clinic: "Women and Heart Rate"
- Mayo Clinic: "What's a normal resting heart rate?"
- Mayo Clinic: "Tachycardia"
- Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, 2nd Edition
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.