Understanding Your Heart Rate

Date: Feb 13, 2024

You’ve probably noticed that your health care provider checks your heart rate during every visit. That’s because your heart is one of the most important organs in your body. Checking how your heart beats provides your doctor with vital clues about your overall health.

As an electrophysiologist at Emory Healthcare, Miguel Leal, MD, knows a thing or two about heartbeats. In fact, they’re his specialty.

Over the course of your lifetime, your heart beats about 3 billion times—give or take a billion depending on how long you live, explains Dr. Leal. “Your heartbeats are precious, and you should use them wisely.”

What’s a Good Heart Rate?

An average heart at rest beats between 50 and 100 times per minute (BPM). Why the wide range? If you’re physically fit, your resting rate will be closer to 50 – 60 BPM. Good physical conditioning benefits your heart because it doesn’t have to work as fast to pump blood adequately.

However, a person with a higher average resting heart rate (between 80 and 100 BPM) may have their provider look a little closer. “A higher-than-average resting heart rate sends a yellow flag,” explains Dr. Leal. “I’d want to uncover why the heart is beating faster than usual.”

A high heart rate can also be caused by pain, fever, anxiety or high adrenaline levels (“fight or flight” stress response). “Individuals may be prone to an elevated fight-or-flight response that puts extra pressure on their heart,” says Dr. Leal. Consistently high levels of adrenaline can damage your heart over time.

Wearable Devices Can Track Irregular Heart Rates

If you’re ready to start tracking your heart rate, wearable devices, such as smartwatches or fitness trackers, can make all the difference.

“Over the past 10-15 years, wearable devices have improved so much that the data they provide is now almost comparable to some diagnostic tests we have available in the medical office or hospital,” explains Dr. Leal.

Today’s wearable devices can often accurately flag changes in the heart rate that signify a potential heart condition. If you receive such a warning, Dr. Leal suggests bringing the data to your primary care provider and/or your cardiologist.

The earlier a heart condition is diagnosed and treated, the better your chances of living a healthy life. Prompt medical attention can also lower your chances of serious complications, including heart failure, stroke and heart attack.

Dr. Leal warns that some people can become highly fixated—even obsessed—with their wearable device data. People may monitor their vitals multiple times each day, notice small changes and become psychologically distressed. This anxiety can lead to more health problems.

Instead, he explains that wearable devices can empower you to take charge of your health. While you shouldn’t be obsessed with always closing your rings, you can measure how a few extra daily steps or exercises can help your heart. Take it slow and steady, he counsels.

By the Numbers

Smartwatches give you lots of data, but it’s not the whole picture. Different conditions can cause your heart to beat beyond its typical range.

Tachycardia (High Heart Rate)

Tachycardia is a heart rate of more than 100 BPM. If your heart is beating too fast, you may experience chest discomfort, fainting spells, pounding of your heart (palpitations) and shortness of breath during usual activity levels.

This condition can be caused by:

  • Anxiety
  • Certain recreational drugs
  • Excessive amounts of caffeine or alcohol
  • Pain
  • Fever
  • Physical or psychological distress
  • Sleep deprivation

Bradycardia (Low Heart Rate)

If your resting heart rate is lower than 50 BPM, your heart rate is low. With bradycardia, you may experience dizziness, fatigue, lightheadedness or fainting spells.

Common conditions that may cause a low rate may include:

  • An aging heart, no longer able to keep up with the body’s demand 
  • Low blood temperature (hypothermia)
  • Low thyroid function (hypothyroidism)
  • Other hormonal conditions
  • Medications, such as beta-blockers or calcium channel blockers

Irregular Heartbeat (Arrhythmia)

The most common type of irregular heartbeat is atrial fibrillation or AFib. It is estimated that between three and six million people in the United States have AFib.

Symptoms of AFib

If you have AFib, you may experience one or more of the following:

  • Chest pain
  • Shortness of breath
  • Dizziness
  • Fatigue
  • Fluttering or thumping in your chest
  • Sweating
  • Weakness

Learn how to recognize Afib and get the treatment you need.

Get Started Today

When it comes to a healthy heart, knowing your numbers is just the beginning. When tracking your heart rate, pay attention to any changes you see, such as an increase or a decrease in your resting heart rate over time. If you notice such a change, let your primary care provider know.

At Emory Healthcare, we’ve made it easier to connect with us and find the care you need, when and where you need us. If you have questions about your heart health or about specific symptoms you’re experiencing, start by scheduling an appointment with your primary care provider

Know ALL Your Numbers

When you start your journey to a healthier heart, you need to understand more than your heart rate. Other numbers are equally important for adults:

  • Weight/BMI (body mass index). If your BMI is 18.5 to 24.9, it falls within the healthy weight range.
  • Blood cholesterol. A healthy cholesterol level is less than 200 mg/dL. Borderline high, 200 to 239 mg/dL.
  • Blood pressure. A healthy blood pressure is a systolic pressure (top number) of less than 120 and a diastolic pressure (bottom number) of less than 80.
  • Glucose levels (blood sugar). Glucose levels between 70 mg/dL (3.9 mmol/L) and 100 mg/dL (5.6 mmol/L) are considered healthy.

Keeping these numbers within healthy ranges can strengthen your heart and minimize the risk of complications such as diabetes. Your primary care provider will work with you to design a plan that meets your needs and goals.

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