Gotta Run: Resting heart rate and why it’s important

Published 12:00 am Saturday, May 21, 2022

People who exercise regularly eventually get around to paying attention to their resting heart rate. Some even use the resting heart rate as a measure of how intensely they should push themselves in the next workout.

With my recent blood infection, kidney stones and stents, I had plenty of reasons for my own resting heart rate to go haywire. Earlier in the year, I had an angiogram, a medical procedure that takes pictures of how your heart is working. But for the procedure to work, either naturally or by medication, the patient’s heart must beat at less than 55 beats per minute. Thankfully mine did, something around 52 which I was proud of.

In my most competitive years, from about age 35 to 45, I could usually keep it well under 50 and sometimes in the lower 40s. My heart and cardiovascular system were at their healthiest and strongest during that time.

What does your resting heart tell doctors and why should we pay attention? Usually at the first meeting of our beginning runners class, I ask the participants if they monitor their resting heart rate regularly. Almost none have and few remember the last time they checked. But exercise enthusiasts, on the other end of the spectrum, monitor theirs regularly. The heart is just like any other muscle, and it needs work. By getting exercise and challenging your heart, it gets stronger and gradually will take less beats to do the same work.

I tell those in the class who often struggle at first that their resting heart rate will gradually decrease as they get fitter on the way to doing a continuous 3.1 miles. The same goes for cycling, swimming and all cardiovascular sports. Even lifting weights or doing pushups will strengthen your heart when done correctly. My pushups done in the morning are harder on my heart for a short period of time than running is. Such is the basis for the popular high intensity workout programs like HIIT, short in duration but very intense in methods and practices. Sort of like the difference between running 100 yards as opposed to a distance race.

Why does the resting heart rate matter? An increase in resting rate has been linked to an increase in mortality from chronic diseases, such as type 2 diabetes and cancer. Resting heart rate can be used as a low-cost, noninvasive way to assess risk for cardiovascular disease and the effectiveness of interventions related to physical activity. Young or old, a stronger heart and cardiovascular system will usually be linked to all kinds of positive happenings that you hear me mention often.

Other factors are connected to individual assessment like stress, smoking, alcohol consumption and body mass index. When a person who doesn’t exercise has a low resting heart, possibly the reason is a term called bradycardia, linking dizziness and shortness of breath to the low pulse.

An elevated resting heart rate of 80 bpm or higher can be an indicator of increased cardiovascular risk. The risk is most pronounced when the resting heart rate goes above 90 bpm. Resting heart rate varies by sex. Women tend to have smaller hearts and lower blood volume and hemoglobin, which means the heart needs to beat more frequently to nourish the body’s tissues.

A person’s average resting heart rate also changes throughout the lifespan, being much faster in infants and slowing by adulthood. The average ranges also change slightly as we age.

Resting heart rate can also be affected by any medications taken. For example, beta-blockers and calcium channel blockers can lower your resting heart rate below 60, while medications to treat asthma, depression, and attention deficit disorder might raise it. Be careful here!

I have always heard that the very best time to check your resting heart rate is just as you wake in the morning before getting out of bed. But any time you deem yourself completely relaxed will work. Use a good quality blood pressure meter that also records pulse rate for easy monitoring. And if you get an unusual reading, check again before any concern. I keep the batteries working in mine!

Saturday is the Bare Bones 5K at Knox Middle School benefitting Relay for Life. It is open to everyone of all abilities with more information at www.salisburyrowanrunners.org .

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