When you exercise, you get your heart pumping. Have you ever reached that level where you feel like your heart’s going to beat out of your chest? Can your heart beat too fast or too slow and if so what does that mean?  What’s normal when it comes to your heart rate and why does it matter?

Your heart rate is the number of times the lower ventricles contract in a minute, or how many times your heart beats in a minute. There are a number of factors that can affect your heart rate and how much oxygen rich blood your body needs, including weight, physical activity, sleep, anxiety, stress, medications and illness.

Your resting heart rate (RHR) is the number of times your heart beats when at complete rest. When you are completely relaxed, place two fingers on your wrist below the base of the thumb and count the number of beats for 15 seconds, multiply by four and you’ll get your resting heart rate.  The ideal range is 50-90 beats a minute.  A lower RHR is a good indicator of physical health.

Abnormal heart rates can be an indication of disease or other ailments. A higher RHR can put you at risk for cardiovascular disease or heart attack. The higher the number of beats over a prolonged time, the more likely your heart will suffer in overall function. A study in the journal “Heart” found that a higher RHR was linked to higher blood pressure, obesity, lower physical fitness and even death. The study showed an RHR between 81-90 doubled the chances of death and over 90 tripled the chances. 

A lower RHR is usually a good sign, but if you’re feeling weak, short of breath, fatigued or experiencing fainting spells, there may be cause for concern.  A low RHR in someone that is not physically fit can be related to conditions that slow the electrical impulses through the heart like hypothyroidism, too much potassium in the blood or an electrolyte imbalance or more serious infections such as myocarditis and endocarditis, heart attack and coronary heart disease.
An erratic heart beat such as fluttering or skipping a beat, does not necessarily mean you’re having a heart attack. Palpitations can be caused by exercise, alcohol, anxiety, or any other number of factors.  If you’re having heart palpitations, shortness of breath and chest pains, contact a doctor immediately.
During the summer months, the heat can also impact your heart rate. When your body temperature drastically rises, it rids itself of the extra heat by radiation and evaporation, both of which stress the heart. Your body radiates heat into the air, but this cycle stops when the air temperature is the same or hotter than your body temperature.
During radiation your heart can beat two to four times faster and harder to reroute the blood flow to your skin. Sweat helps regulate your body temperature by ridding your body of the excess heat and one teaspoon of sweat can cool your bloodstream by two degrees. On a humid day, though, evaporation no longer works which causes your heart to work harder to make up for the loss of sodium, potassium and other minerals needed for muscle contractions and nerve transmissions.
The best way to lower your resting heart rate and decrease your risk of heart disease or heart attacks is exercise. Even a little goes a long way with your heart. Invest in a heart rate monitor and keep track while you work out. If you notice your heart rate is reaching elevated levels take it down a notch. On the other hand, if it’s getting lower, you know you’re making progress.
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