How to Check Your Heart Rate

June 9, 2021

Clinical Contributors to this Story

Bernard Kim, M.D. contributes to topics such as Cardiology.

George Batsides, M.D. contributes to topics such as Cardiothoracic Surgery.

Like the check-engine light on your car, your vital signs can alert you when something’s wrong so you can get your vehicle to a mechanic—or rather, your body to a doctor—before it breaks down.

“Knowledge is power,” says George Batsides, M.D., chief of cardiac surgery at Hackensack University Medical Center. “The more data you have about your body, the better off you’re going to be.”

One of the most important vital signs to monitor on a regular basis is your heart rate, or pulse. Although it’s not a perfect indicator, measuring it both at rest and during exercise can give you a sense of your overall physical fitness and maybe even your risk for a heart attack.

Follow these tips to calculate it and keep track of it:

  1. Know What’s Normal

There are two different heart rates:

  • Resting heart rate, which is your pulse when you’re inactive and sedentary
  • Maximum predicted heart rate, which is your pulse when you’re exercising at maximum effort

Before you measure either, it’s important to know what’s normal:

  • Typically, a healthy resting heart rate is between 60 and 80 beats per minute, says cardiologist Bernard Kim, M.D., although it’s normal for athletes to have resting heart rates in the 50s or even the 40s.
  • To estimate a normal maximum predicted heart rate, subtract your age from 220. If you’re 60 years old, for example, your maximum predicted heart rate is 220 minus 60, which is 160 beats per minute.
  1. Check Your Pulse

Once you know what’s normal for someone of your age, you can take your pulse and compare it. You can measure your heart rate manually or electronically.

  • To measure manually: Place the index finger and middle finger from your dominant hand on the wrist of your non-dominant hand and count the pulses or beats that you feel. Your heart rate is expressed as beats per minute, so you can count for a full 60 seconds, or you can count for 15 or 30 seconds and multiply the number by four or two, respectively.
  • To measure electronically: You can monitor your heart rate electronically with a fitness tracker. Although they aren’t always as precise, digital devices generally are reliable and may be able to help you recognize irregularities, Dr. Kim says.

Whichever method you use, take your pulse when you’re calm and relaxed to arrive at your resting heart rate, as well as when you’re engaged in vigorous exercise, in which case your heart rate should be about 85 percent of your maximum predicted heart rate. In both cases, a heart rate that’s higher or lower than average should trigger a cautionary visit to your physician.

  1. Don’t Panic

If your heart rate is higher or lower than normal, don’t jump to conclusions, Dr. Kim cautions. Try again in a few minutes or at another time of day. It’s normal for your heart rate to fluctuate, and a single measurement should not be cause for concern. If you get similar results across several different readings at several different times, however, it’s a good idea to get examined.

  1. Check Your Blood Pressure, Too

Although your heart rate is important, an even more valuable indicator of heart disease is blood pressure, says Dr. Batsides, adding that high blood pressure is a “silent killer” that can be asymptomatic but lethal. When you have high blood pressure, your arteries harden and thicken. That makes it easier for blockages to form, which can lead to heart attacks. The American Heart Association says a normal systolic blood pressure (the top number in a blood pressure reading) is less than 120 while a normal diastolic blood pressure (the bottom number in a blood pressure reading) is less than 80.

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The material provided through HealthU is intended to be used as general information only and should not replace the advice of your physician. Always consult your physician for individual care.