Monitoring Your Pulse: An Important Heart-health Gauge

Your pulse can be used as a tool to help get a picture of your health. Even if you’re not an athlete, knowledge about your heart rate can help you monitor your fitness level—and it might even help you spot developing health problems. “Heart rate” is the number of times your heart beats per minute (BPM). Normal heart rate varies from person to person, and as you age, changes in the rate and regularity of your heart rate can occur and may signify a heart condition or other health condition that may need to be addressed.

Detecting your pulse.

Probably the simplest way to detect your pulse is the tried and true method of putting your finger over a pulse point on your body and counting the number of beats you feel in 60 seconds. The best pulse points are the wrists, the cubital fossa (or the inside of the elbow), the sides of the neck, and the tops of the feet. You can also count the number of beats in 10 seconds and multiply by 6, and while this isn’t as accurate as counting for a full 60 seconds, it can still tell you if your heart is beating too fast or too slow.

There are also many consumer- friendly wearable devices on the market that can detect and monitor your pulse. Chest straps are one example. These devices are wireless EKG-accurate monitors worn around the chest as a thin strap with electrode sensors that can detect the electrical activity of the heart as it beats. This information is then transmitted to a receiver (often a sports watch that also measures pace, distance, and time), which processes and displays the BPM of the wearer. Chest strap devices are considered the most accurate heart rate monitors designed for consumer use.

Optical monitors are another example of wearable devices used to detect the heart rate. These devices use a process called photoplethysmography (PPG), which involves shining light into the skin and measuring perfusion of blood in the dermis and subcutaneous tissue by capturing the different amounts light refracted by varying levels of blood flow. This technology is what is typically used in sports watches, smart phones, and other fitness trackers (e.g., iWatch, Garmen, FitBit) to detect and monitor heart rates. While these devices may not be as precise as the equipment used in doctors offices and hospitals nor as accurate as the chest strap devices, researchers say the smartwatches and wristbands are accurate enough for most consumers’ needs.

Monitoring your heart rate.

Resting heart rate is when the heart is pumping the lowest amount of blood needed to function in a normal fashion (e.g., when sleeping or sitting still). A normal resting heart rate can be anywhere from 60 BPM to 100 BPM depending on the individual. But a heart rate slower than 60 BPM doesn’t necessarily signal a medical problem. It could be the result of taking a drug such as a beta blocker. Actually, a very low heart rate is common in individuals who are very physically active, such as endurance athletes (e.g., marathoners, tri-athletes). People who are very active often have lower heart rates because their heart muscle is in better condition and pumps the blood more efficiently with less beats through the body than non-active people . Individuals who do moderate physical activity probably won’t see much of a change in their resting pulse, but endurance athletes have been known to have resting heart rates as low as 40 BPM. A less fit person will usually have a higher resting heart rate than a fit person because, like any other muscle in the body, if it isn’t exercised, the heart muscle loses strength and has to work harder (beat faster) to maintain bodily functions.

Other factors that affect heart rate.

Air temperature. The higher the temperature and humidity, the harder the heart has to work. Your body more easily dissipates its heat into the air when the temperature around you is lower than your body temperature. But the closer the air temperature is to your body temperature, the more difficult it becomes to radiate the heat from your body. More blood is needed by the skin to dissipate bodily heat, which makes the heart beat faster and pump harder, especially during physical activity.

Body position. While lying down, sitting, or standing, your pulse won’t vary that much as long as you aren’t moving. Sometimes as you stand up, your pulse may go up a little bit for the first 15 to 20 seconds, and then settle back down. Movement, even very light activity like walking from one room of the house to another room, will cause your BPM to rise slightly until you stop moving around.

Emotions. If you’re stressed, anxious, or feeling extremely happy or sad, your BPM may rise.

Body weight. If you are overweight for your size, you will have a higher overall heart rate. That is because your heart will have to pump harder to supply energy to the body. A higher level of blood pressure is also a corollary of high weight.

Medication. Meds that block your adrenaline (beta blockers) tend to slow your pulse, while too much thyroid medication or too high of a dosage will raise it. Other medications may have an effect on your pulse, so check with your doctor or pharmacist if you take any meds.

When to call your doctor.

If you’re on a beta blocker to decrease your heart rate (and lower blood pressure) or to control an abnormal rhythm (arrhythmia), your doctor may ask you to monitor and log your heart rate. Keeping tabs on your heart rate can help your doctor determine whether to change the dosage or switch to a different medication. If your pulse is very low or if you have frequent episodes of unexplained fast heart rates, especially if they cause you to feel weak, dizzy, or faint, tell your doctor, who can decide if it’s an emergency.

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