Measuring your heart rate is an effective and easy way to assess your health. It can help you monitor your overall fitness level and identify potential heart conditions.
“Your resting heart rate—or the number of heartbeats per minute while you’re at rest—should range from 60 to 100 beats per minute. It varies, but an unusually high or low resting heart rate or an irregular heartbeat can be a sign that something is wrong. So you should measure your heart rate regularly, understand what’s normal for you, and use that as a gauge,” says Jorge Romero, MD, a Mass General Brigham cardiologist/electrophysiologist.
Dr. Romero is the director of arrhythmia and electrophysiology research and associate director of the Ventricular Arrhythmia Program at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. He treats patients at the Brigham’s main campus and at Brigham and Women’s Faulkner Hospital.
Dr. Romero recommends that all adults measure their resting heart rate once a week. Those older than 60 should assess resting heart rate more often, as often as daily. Anyone who is curious about their overall fitness can also measure heart rate during or after activity.
Follow these steps to measure your heart rate (or someone else’s):
For example, if you count 20 beats in 15 seconds, multiply 20 by 4, for a total of 80 beats per minute.
Dr. Romero offers several useful tips. “Sometimes people lose track, cannot focus for a whole minute, or count erroneously. That’s why we suggest counting for a shorter time and then multiplying. You can even count for 6 seconds and then multiply by 10—that might be the easiest and quickest way to get a calculation equal to 60 seconds,” he says.
It’s also important to take your resting heart rate at the right time. It doesn’t matter what time of day you measure your heart rate. But don’t do it after exercising, experiencing stress, or consuming caffeine. Those things can elevate your heart rate for up to 2 hours. Ideally, you should be in a comfortable position for at least 5 minutes before you measure your heart rate.
To ensure you get an accurate measurement, you can repeat the process a few times and calculate an average:
For example, say you count your heart rate three times and get 80, 84 and 91. Those numbers add up to 255. When you divide by 3, you get 85 beats per minute—your average resting heart rate.
“Most people have devices that automatically measure heart rate, like an Apple watch or a Fitbit, or even smartphone apps that use your phone’s camera to sense the pulse in your finger,” Dr. Romero says. “It’s much easier to do this with a device, and the devices are getting more accurate over time. Even though they’re not perfect, they provide good estimates.”
These devices have several advantages, including automatic timing and tracking heart rate over time to show changes or trends.
If you’re not sure a device is accurate, Dr. Romero suggests taking your heart rate by hand and comparing the numbers.
As you track your heart rate regularly over time, you’ll start to understand what’s normal for you. Talk to your primary care provider if you notice:
These circumstances don’t necessarily mean that something’s wrong, but they can indicate a problem. A consistently slower heart rate might simply mean that you’re especially physically fit. But a heart rate higher or lower than the normal range could be a sign of:
“Many people check their heart rate when they’re anxious or angry or they just drank coffee or an energy drink. There are so many things that can give you a rate faster than 100. But if you notice a trend, talk to a doctor,” Dr. Romero says.
Dr. Romero emphasizes that you should immediately report any irregular heart rhythm, or arrhythmia. That may feel like:
An irregular heartbeat might be a sign of atrial fibrillation (AFib), the most common arrhythmia in the world. It can affect people of any age, but it gets increasingly more common as we age.
“By the time you’re 70 years old, the incidence of atrial fibrillation is 10% to 15%, which is extremely high. AFib increases the risk of stroke by five times, and even more when associated with other health conditions like hypertension or diabetes,” Dr. Romero says. “But you can detect it just by checking your heart rate. Then we can get you in for testing, medications, and minimally invasive procedures to prevent stroke.”
If you’re physically active, you may want to understand your heart rate during exercise to assess fitness. The information can help you understand what amount of exercise might be too much for you. It can also help explain symptoms during exercise, such as light-headedness or unusual fatigue.
The formula for maximum heart rate is 220 minus your age, Dr. Romero says. So, if you’re 70, you should not go over 150 (220 - 70 = 150). But nobody should go over 200.
“Even if you’re a young, high-performance athlete doing hardcore exercise, you shouldn’t go higher than 200 because you can experience myocardial ischemia—when the heart doesn’t receive enough blood flow and oxygen—and that can lead to a heart attack,” he cautions.
Overall, your heart rate is a useful tool that provides a snapshot of your health. If you notice that your heart rate is very high or that your rhythm is irregular, seek medical attention. This is especially true if you’re experiencing any symptoms, such as sudden fatigue, dizziness, palpitations, pain, or excessive sweating.