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What Your Heart Rate Can Tell You About Your Health

Posted March 20, 2023 by Roger Chaffee, M.D.

Man checking his pulse

For people who wear smartwatches or fitness trackers, knowing how fast your heart is beating is as simple as glancing at your wrist. Your heart rate, also known as your pulse, is an indicator of how many times your heart beats per minute. Since the heart is responsible for pumping blood and oxygen throughout your body, its health is vital to yours.

It’s typical for your heart to beat faster during exercise and slower during rest. However, if your heart beats too fast (tachycardia) or too slow (bradycardia), or is out of rhythm (arrythmia) for too long, it can lead to scary side effects.

Summa Health answers common questions about heart rates, what’s normal and what’s not, and what it could mean for your overall heart health. Having a lower resting heart rate means your heart doesn’t have to work as hard, which indicates your heart muscle is in better condition. On the other hand, studies have linked a higher resting heart rate with a sedentary lifestyle, high blood pressure and obesity.

First, how do you measure your heart rate?

There are several different ways you can check your pulse. The easiest way is to place the tips of your first two fingers either inside your wrist or on your neck by your windpipe. Count the number of times your heart beats in 10 seconds and multiply that number by 6 to get your beats per minute. If you have a smartwatch or other fitness tracking device, it may provide heart rate information.

What’s a normal heart rate and what’s not?

For adults, a normal resting heart rate ranges between 60 and 100 beats per minute (bpm). If you’re an athlete, your resting heart rate may range from 40 to 60 bpm. Factors that contribute to heart rate include age, fitness level, health conditions and any medications you take.

It’s important to know what’s normal for you so you can keep tabs on your heart health. If you are experiencing an abnormally (for you) high or low heart rate, accompanied by dizziness, fainting or shortness of breath, consult your physician.

What is my target heart rate when exercising?

In addition to resting heart rate, adults also have a targeted range based on their age when exercising. According to the American Heart Association, your target during moderately intense exercise is about 50 - 70% of your maximum heart rate. During vigorous physical activity, it’s about 70 - 85% of your maximum.

To figure out your intensity, subtract your age from the number 220. For example, for a 40-year-old, heart rate would be calculated as 220 – 40 years = 180 bpm. Here’s how to calculate a 40-year-old’s range:

  • 50% level: 180 x 0.50 = 90 bpm
  • 70% level: 180 x 0.70 = 126 bpm

This formula shows that moderately intense physical activity for a 40-year-old requires the heart rate to stay between 90 and 126 bpm during exercise. You can use this same formula to estimate what your heart rate should be for vigorous physical activity by multiplying by 0.85.


The chart referenced below has already done the math for you:



Target HR Zone 50-85%

Average Maximum Heart Rate, 100%

20 years

100-170 beats per minute (bpm)

200 bpm

30 years

95-162 bpm

190 bpm

35 years

93-157 bpm

185 bpm

40 years

90-153 bpm

180 bpm

45 years

88-149 bpm

175 bpm

50 years

85-145 bpm

170 bpm

55 years

83-140 bpm

165 bpm

60 years

80-136 bpm

160 bpm

65 years

78-132 bpm

155 bpm

70 years

75-128 bpm

150 bpm


What factors affect heart rates?

Everything from your fitness level to the medications you take can affect your heart rate. Some factors that can contribute to a high or low pulse include:

  • Heart disease and heart failure
  • Physical exertion (being very physically fit actually lowers a person’s resting heart rate)
  • Certain medications, such as those that treat asthma, cough, cold and allergies
  • Alcohol, tobacco, caffeine and herbal supplements
  • Illness/fever
  • Over or underactive thyroid
  • Anemia
  • Stress and anxiety
  • Peripheral arterial disease (diseases of the blood vessels)
  • Blood clots

Any noticeable changes in your heartbeat can be scary. If you have questions or concerns about your heart rate, or often feel faint, dizzy or short of breath, discuss them with your provider. Changes in your heart rate can be a sign of a serious condition.


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If your situation is an emergency, call 911.