What’s in a pulse? More than you think. Those little rhythmic beats hold clues to the state of your fitness as well as your heart. What’s more, getting to know your pulse not only gives you insight into your physical health, but it can also help you reduce stress and anxiety once you learn how to control it (yes, that’s possible).
To learn what your pulse is telling you, you first need to get an accurate reading. Take your resting pulse, which is the number of times your heart beats per minute in a non-active state (e.g., sitting). This is when the heart is pumping the lowest amount of blood the body needs. You can find your pulse by placing two fingers on the inner wrist, the inside of the elbow, the side of your neck or the top of your foot. Once you find your pulse, simply set a timer for one minute and count. The average resting pulse is between 60 and 100 beats per minute (bpm), says NYU Langone Medical Center cardiologist Adriana Quinones-Garcia, MD. But what’s a healthy pulse?
Typically, the lower your bpm, the more efficiently your heart is at pumping, says Quinones-Garcia. And vice versa: “A weak heart from certain diseases may need to squeeze more frequently to pump the same amount of blood as a stronger heart.” A resting pulse that exceeds the normal range (over 100 bpm) may be a signal that the body is stressed, especially if it’s accompanied by lightheadedness or trouble breathing. These conditions should be evaluated by a physician, says Quinones-Garcia.
If you’re in good shape, your pulse will be likely be at the low end of the normal range or even a bit lower—in the high 50s, says Frank Wyatt, MD, professor of exercise physiology at Midwestern State University. Elite athletes, he adds, can have resting heart rates in the 40 to 50 bpm range, or even lower. “I’ve measured high-level cyclists in my lab with a resting heart rate in the 30s,” he says. But there’s a lot of variation, which may due to genetics, Wyatt explains. For example, Olympic marathon superstar Frank Shorter’s resting heart rate was reportedly 75 bpm.
Whatever your pulse is, there’s always some fluctuation. “A healthy heart is not a metronome. Timing varies. In a physically active person, the resting heart rate might be 54 bpm one moment and 65 bpm the next,” says Fred Shaffer, PhD, professor of psychology and director of the Truman Center for Applied Psychophysiology, who explains that this irregularity (called heart rate variability) is actually good. You want swings, says Shaffer. “Healthy heart-rate variability allows us to regulate blood pressure.” Plus, your body needs to adjust heart rate to perform at different workloads (like running instead of walking). “Average changes of 15 to 20 bpm across the breathing cycle are excellent,” Shaffer says. “Elite athletes may change 50 bpm from inhalation to exhalation.”
Elite or not, all heart rates increase during exercise. A fit person’s heart rate will rise faster than a not-so-fit person’s because strong hearts respond to stimulus quickly, says Wyatt. It will also decrease quickly. “The more fit you are, the faster your heart rate will drop when you stop exercising, another good indicator of fitness,” says Wyatt, who believes heart rate monitors are very useful, though he’s not a fan of target heart-rate charts since they’re based only on age, not on fitness level (which might cause you to work out too hard or not hard enough).
When you’re not working out, there are other reasons why you can experience a spike in heart rate, many of which are short-lived and self-correcting. Hot flashes and hot weather can raise a pulse by as many as 5 to 10 bpm. Dehydration and fever can temporarily speed up your pulse—the body’s reflex mechanism to maintain adequate blood flow to the organs, Quinones-Garcia explains. Certain medications, including thyroid hormones, may give your pulse a jolt, as can—no surprise—caffeine.
And, of course, there’s anxiety. Pulse rates can jump due to panic attacks or just from occasional nerves. Simply sitting in a doctor’s office can bring on a racing heart. The same adrenaline that’s released during exercise speeds up the heart during emotional stress, though this kind of stress does not have all the other beneficial cardiovascular effects of exercise, says Quinones-Garcia.
Fortunately, you can de-stress by learning to slow your pulse. The simplest way, says Shaffer, is to breathe in and out, the ideal rate being between 4.5 and 6.5 breaths per minute.
If you find your pulse is frequently high, another option is biofeedback, a mind-body technique that many cardiologists, including Quinones-Garcia, recommend. Biofeedback trains patients to influence their autonomic nervous systems, the part of the body that controls involuntary physical functions such as heart rate. During a biofeedback-training session, electrodes placed on the body convert information about the nervous system into sounds (like a beep), pictures on a computer screen or flashing lights. For example, a sensor may be placed on the finger, causing a beep that coincides with the pulse—as the heart slows down, the tone or pace of the beep changes. You are trained to use slow-breathing techniques and think relaxing thoughts (like imagining blood flowing smoothly through your body or lying on a beach—whatever “mantra” works) to control the beeps and effect the desired physical change.
A typical course of biofeedback therapy lasts for eight to 10 sessions ($35 to $85 per 45-minute session). If you learn the technique, however, you can use it on your own whenever you want to calm down. As Shaffer says, “A slower pulse can lead to improvement with anxiety and depression as well as better memory and emotional self-control.”
Who can argue with that?