Why to pay attention to your heartbeat

When it comes to ‘affairs of the heart’, there are many things that can set our pulses racing, but the reason why our hearts speed up and down all the time usually depends on our need for oxygen, so it should be no surprise that activity levels are normally the key factor.

What is a “normal” heart rate can vary from woman to woman, yet a higher resting heart rate, or low maximum heart rate, may signal an increased risk of heart attack and death. So, it’s a good idea to check our pulse every so often for a sense of what’s “normal” for each of us, making it easier to spot unusual changes in rate or regularity that may require attention.

What is the resting pulse?

According to Harvard Health, when we are at rest, our heart is pumping the lowest amount of blood to supply the oxygen we need. Typically, most healthy women will have a resting heart rate ranging from 60 to 100 beats per minute.

However, a report from the Women’s Health Initiative indicated that a resting heart rate at the lower end of this range may offer some protection against cardiovascular disease, while a higher resting heart rate in the range was independently associated with coronary events. Indeed, women with resting heart rates higher than 76 beats per minute were 26% more likely to have a heart attack or die from one than those with the lowest resting heart rates of 62 beats per minute or less.

What is the maximum heart rate?

This is the rate the heart beats when it is under pressure to meet our oxygen needs when we push ourselves hard through exertion, such as exercise. The maximum heart rate plays a big role in setting our aerobic capacity, basically the amount of oxygen we can consume. Observational studies have indicated that a high aerobic capacity is associated with a lower risk of heart attack and death. However, beware of pushing yourself too hard too often. If you are short of breath, are in pain or can’t work out as long as you’d planned, your exercise intensity is probably higher than your fitness level allows. Back off a bit and build intensity gradually.

Why is exercise important?

Exercise is remarkable. Through vigorous exercise we can lower our resting heart rate and increase our maximum heart rate and aerobic capacity. And because it’s impossible to maintain a maximum heart rate for more than a few minutes, it’s wiser to set a percentage of our maximum heart rate as a target to help improve fitness and the benefits this brings. An exercise heart rate target range from the American Heart Association below provides a good guide for what they recommend across age groups. 

Note: If an exercise routine is something you are considering for the first time, always consult your doctor before you set a target, as depending on your medical situation the recommendation may be at the lower end of the range. Intensity may increase as fitness develops.

How to take your pulse

Of course, to pay attention to our heartbeat we need to be able to take our own pulse. While the wrist is favoured by many, my favourite spot is the lower left-hand side of the neck. Place the index and middle fingers together on your neck, feeling around lightly until you detect throbbing. Don’t press too hard, as this may suppress the pulse. A reasonably accurate reading can be achieved by counting the number of beats in 15 seconds and then multiplying by four; alternatively, count for 30 seconds and then multiply by two.

The best time to monitor the resting heart rate is first thing in the morning. When it comes to the max rate, or percentage thereof, the more vigorous the exercise, the higher it will be – just be sure to take your pulse immediately afterwards.

Average maximum heart rates and target rates by ageAmerican Heart Association

Age

Average MAXIMUM heart rate in beats per minute

Target heart rate range in beats per minute

40

180

90 to 153

45

175

88 to 149

50

170

85 to 145

55

165

83 to 140

60

160

80 to 136

65

155

78 to 132

70

150

75 to 128

 

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Iris is the founder of No Targets Just Routine. She has researched food since 2009 and believes “Happiness is real food shared with loved ones.”

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