Your heart rate probably isn't something you consider often—unless you're paying attention to how fast it's beating during a workout, or are monitoring it after a health scare—but it can tell you a lot about your health.
Before you start looking for a single, specific number for your heart rate, however, know this: It's not the same for everyone, and it even differs in your own body, depending on what you're doing. Your resting heart rate, for example—or how fast your heart beats when you're not doing anything—will be much lower than your target heart rate, which you aim for while working out.
Many other factors play into your heart rate reading too, like your age and genetics. Health spoke to cardiologists to find out what's considered a healthy heart rate and how to know if yours falls within that range.
What is a healthy resting heart rate?
As a rule, your resting heart rate should be somewhere between 60 to 100 while you're performing normal, non-exercise-related activities, Ruwanthi Titano, MD, an assistant professor of cardiology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, tells Health.
That's a huge range, but with good reason: A number of factors influence your heart rate, Dr. Titano adds, explaining that genetics play a role in the measurement. However, the biggest determinant is likely how much exercise you get. "For most patients, the big factor is cardiac conditioning," Dr. Titano says. The AHA adds that the temperature outside might also have a slight effect on your heart rate, as can your emotions, claiming that stress or anxiety can make your heart rate higher. Certain medications, including thyroid medications, can also affect your pulse, per the AHA. Additionally, your heart rate might slow down as you age, Dr. Titano says.
There are also exceptions to this 60 to 100 beats-per-minute range—primarily on the lower end of the spectrum. The heart rate of a highly-trained athlete, for example—one who is used to high-endurance workouts and cardio training—might typically be below 60 beats when they're not working out, due to their conditioning.
What should your heart rate be while exercising?
Obviously, your heart rate is going to increase when you work out. For this healthy range, you need to know two terms: Your maximum heart rate and your target heart rate.
You can find your maximum heart rate by subtracting your age from 220, says Dr. Titano—but that number will be at the highest end of your spectrum. For example, if you're around 30 years old, your maximum heart rate will be about 190 beats per minute, according to the American Heart Association—and if you reach that point while exercising, its a good idea to take a break, since you'll be near 100% of your maximum heart rate.
A better number to aim for during exercise is your target heart rate, or a safe percentage of your maximum heart rate. During activities of moderate intensity, the AHA says your target heart rate should be 50-70% of your maximum heart rate, while during vigorous physical activity, it should be 70-85% of your max.
How physically active you are on a regular basis influences your heart rate during exercise too, Daniel Cantillon, MD, a cardiologist at Cleveland Clinic, tells Health. That means it may take more work on your end to get to your target heart rate as you continue working out and conditioning your heart.
So how can you find your heart rate—and how can you tell if its abnormal?
The easiest, most accurate way to check your heart rate is the old-fashioned way: By checking your own pulse with your fingers.
There are four places on your body where you can do that, according to the American Heart Association (AHA): inside your elbow, on the side of the neck, on the top of your feet, or on the inside of your wrists. To find your number, set your phone (or any other) timer for one minute, then count the number of times you feel your pulse during those 60 seconds.
While you can also use a smart watch or similar device to check your heart rate, Dr. Cantillon advises against relying on those devices too much, especially when you exercise. "Some patients tend to be heart rate-centric when they exercise, [but] you're exercising according to a number that could be, in some cases, grossly inaccurate." Since accuracy with heart rate detection can be difficult for some technology to gauge, it might be simpler to listen to your body during a work out, Dr. Cantillon says.
If at anytime—during exercise or rest periods—you feel your heart is beating too fast, it's something to pay attention to, says Dr. Cantillon. "Many people have an awareness of their heart rate beating faster than normal," Dr. Cantillon says. At that point, you should also monitor your body for other symptoms like dizziness or chest pain, and seek medical help if you notice any other red flags like shortness of breath or if your heart rate doesn't return to normal within a few minutes.
Keep in mind, however, that you may not notice a change in your heart rate at all. "A lot of patients are very sensitive to their heart rate; they can feel when it goes too high [or] slows down, [but] some people are not aware at all," says Dr. Titano.
Aside from beating too fast, your heart can also beat too slow, beat unevenly, or you can even notice pauses in your heart beat. (The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute says this may feel like your heart skipping a beat). Other symptoms of any kind of arrhythmia (aka any irregular heart beat), include anxiety, fatigue, fainting, sweating, per the NHLBI.
The bottom line here: It's a smart habit to check your own heart rate once in a while to know your baseline resting number, and how much work your heart does during exercise. And as always, your best bet is to check in with your doctor if something feels off and is worrisome to you.
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