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The Value of Knowing Your Resting Heart Rate

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Person looking at heart rate monitor on watch

Fitness pioneer and Founder and Chairman of Cooper Aerobics Kenneth H. Cooper, MD, MPH, explains the importance of knowing your resting heart rate, and why it matters.

1. Let’s start with the basics. What is resting heart rate?

Dr. Cooper: Resting heart rate, or RHR, is simply the number of heartbeats per minute while you are at rest. It is a real-time snapshot of how your heart muscle is functioning and an easy and effective way to gauge your health and aerobic fitness.

2. Is it important to monitor my RHR?

Dr. Cooper: Heart rate is important because when the heart is not working properly, just about everything is affected. The three basic abnormalities—or arrhythmia—doctors watch for include:

  • Tachycardia, which is rapid RHR
  • Bradycardia, which is slow RHR
  • Atrial fibrillation, which is an irregular heartbeat and the leading cause of stroke

So yes, paying attention to your heart rate is important. As we say at Cooper Clinic, know your numbers! However, I don’t want people to obsess about it because fluctuations take place throughout the day.

3. What is an ideal RHR range?

Dr. Cooper: Your resting heart rate is considered normal if it is between 60 and 100 beats per minute, but this may vary based on age and gender. Normal RHR for a man is about 72 beats per minute and for a woman it’s going to be about 80 beats per minute. A young, highly-trained athlete’s healthy resting heart rate may be as low as 40 beats per minute—and I’ve seen even lower. My resting heart rate runs between 46 and 50 due to my many, many years of activity and marathons.

4. How do I determine my RHR?

Dr. Cooper: Simply place your index and middle finger on your wrist just below the thumb or along either side of your neck, so you can feel your pulse. Use a watch to count the number of beats for 15 seconds and multiply by four. There are also heart monitors on the market today that are inexpensive and easy to use.

5. What are the health benefits of a lower RHR?

Dr. Cooper: A low RHR is a sign of a strong heart muscle that can pump enough blood to supply the body with oxygen without having to labor too hard. This indicates a higher level of fitness which not only adds years to your life but life to your years. Studies show when physically fit, we can dramatically decrease our risk of health concerns such as heart attacks, diabetes, high blood pressure, arthritis, many types of cancer and even Alzheimer’s disease. Exercise promotes other important benefits as well. We have more energy, sleep better and keep excess weight off easier. What’s more, exercise stimulates various brain chemicals that leave us feeling happier, more relaxed and less anxious.

6. Should I be concerned if my RHR is above 100 or below 50?

Dr. Cooper: I usually consider a heart rate faster than 100 beats per minute to be too fast though this varies among individuals. A fast heart is called tachycardia and can be caused by a number of factors including anxiety, obesity, stress, pregnancy, anemia, infection, too much caffeine and certain medical conditions such as hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid). For an elevated RHR, we typically place patients on medication because a person cannot tolerate a heart rate of 120 or 130 for prolonged periods of time.

Now a low RHR can be a good thing. However, if your heartbeat falls below 50 beats per minute and you have symptoms such as lightheadedness, confusion or shortness of breath, it may point to a condition called symptomatic bradycardia. This too can be caused by certain medications such as beta blockers or an underactive thyroid.  

Atrial fibrillation is the most common arrhythmia in America today, but the symptoms are not always noticeable. This is why monitoring your RHR is so important and potentially lifesaving. If you feel like your heart is beating too fast or too slowly, or it’s skipping beats, seek medical attention.

7. How can I lower my RHR?

Dr. Cooper: Other than medications, cardiovascular exercise is the number one way to lower your resting heart rate to a healthier range, so my recommendation is to Get Cooperized!  I’ve seen resting heart rates drop 10 beats in just two to three months of regular aerobic exercise. For example, I recommend 30 minutes of collective or sustained aerobic exercise most days of the week for a total of 150 minutes. Sustained exercise is desirable but collective exercise efforts of 10 minutes, five minutes, three minutes throughout the day is beneficial as well.

The important thing is, you’ve got to keep it up for the rest of your life. For my older patients I say, if you have to give up jogging, transition to something like cycling, walking and light weight training which is what I’m doing now.

It’s also important to get plenty of sleep, manage your stress level, embrace good nutrition and stay hydrated.

8. What is the difference between resting heart rate, target heart rate and maximum heart rate?  

Dr. Cooper: Resting heart rate is beats per minute when your heart is at rest. Maximum heart rate is beats per minute when your heart is working its hardest to meet your body’s oxygen needs. At Cooper Clinic, we take patients to at least 85% of predicted maximum heart rate every day on the treadmill—something I pioneered back in the 1960s and is quite standard today. We found if you can get a heart rate to about 85 percent of predicted max, you can detect coronary disease that would be missed at a lower rate and certainly with only a resting electrocardiogram. We safely conduct about 25 stress tests a day here at Cooper Clinic. That’s about 300,000 stress tests over the past 51 years during which time we’ve saved thousands of lives by diagnosing heart disease before it causes symptoms.

OK, so we’ve talked about resting heart rate and maximum heart rate. Target heart rate is a percentage of your maximum heart rate—the desired heartbeats per minute you want to achieve when you’re working out.

How to Calculate Target Heart Rate

First calculate your maximum heart rate: 220 – age

Example: 50-year-old
220 – 50 = 170 BPM (maximum heart rate)

Next, multiply your maximum heart rate by your desired intensity level.

For example:
Moderate-intensity exercise 

  • 64% intensity level: 170 x 0.64 = 109 BPM
  • 76% intensity level: 170 x 0.76 = 129 BPM

High-intensity exercise
Your target heart rate should be between 77% and 93% of your maximum heart rate.

  • 77% intensity level: 170 x 0.77 = 131 BPM
  • 93% intensity level: 170 x 0.93 = 158 BPM

9. Do medications affect resting heart rate?

Dr. Cooper: Yes, some medications can lower your heart rate deliberately such as beta blockers, but also calcium channel blockers and digoxin. Certain antidepressants and opioid-type painkillers can also slow down your heart rate. Other factors can affect heart rate as well—anything from anxiety and body temperature to a recent illness.

10. What else would you like our readers to know?

Dr. Cooper: No drug can replicate the benefits of an active lifestyle. Studies prove regular aerobic exercise can prevent conditions such as cancer, diabetes, dementia, depression, high cholesterol, hypertension, metabolic syndrome and non-fatal heart attacks. And by focusing on prevention, together we could reduce the cost of health care by at least 40%. The bottom line? Exercise is medicine. So get moving!

To learn more about Cooper Clinic preventive exams and how an annual exam can help you manage and improve your health, visit or call 866.906.2667.

Article provided by Kenneth H. Cooper, MD, MPH, Cooper Aerobics Founder and Chairman.