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Your Resting Heart Rate: A Measure of Fitness, Illness and Improvement

Updated on January 7, 2013

Check Your Heart Rate


It is a tricky business trying to push yourself to exercise harder. There are the days where you think you feel okay but after your workout you realize it was a mistake and come down sick. Then there are the days where you take it easy and realize that actually you were just being lazy. Working too hard can set you back weeks if you are coming down sick, but how do you know? Well, my friend, it is time to get to know your resting heart rate.

Your resting heart rate, measured in beats per minute (bpm), indicates the amount of effort your heart needs to make just to maintain all your systems, without the additional stress of exercise/movement. This is basically the slowest that your particular heart beats ordinarily, so not including if you are dying. It varies from person to person and indicates two things: overall it is an indicator of how efficient your cardiovascular system is (ie. how fit you are) and it can also tell you on a day to day basis if your body is struggling with other activities, such as fighting off infection.

It is best to measure your resting heart rate when you first wake up and are still lying in bed. You will be happy to know that you don't actually need a stethoscope. All you need is a watch that counts seconds and knowledge of where to find your pulse. You can also measure it after remaining still for a long period, such as watching TV on the couch. Yes, this is the only time I'm going to recommend watching TV lying on a couch as important to exercise so enjoy it! Using your index and middle fingers, find the pulse point on the carotid artery on either side of your throat. Make sure you can clearly feel the beat.

You need to find out how many times it beats per minute, starting by counting from 'zero'. However, you don't need to count for the entire 60 seconds. When lying down people often raise their arms above their head to see their watch and count. This can increase heart rate over the minute period. Instead, you can count either for six or ten seconds, then just multiple it (eg. count for six, multiple by ten, or count for ten and multiple by six). This reduces the risk of your heart rate increasing, but does increase the risk of inaccuracy from miscounting. The greater the number you multiple by, the greater the risk of inaccuracy. One other mistake people do is to hold their breath, which naturally stresses the body and consequently increases your heart rate. Make sure you are taking slow, even breaths the entire time.

So, you have the number. What does it mean?

To give you a general indication:

Under 60 bpm? Great, that's the resting heart rate of someone very active and fit.

60 - 80 bpm? That's average, so well done you.

80 - 100 bpm? That's high, but still okay so don't worry.

101+ bpm? This is getting too high and you should think about seeing your doctor.

As you exercise and build up your aerobic base (over years, not weeks) your resting heart rate should decrease. This is an indication that your heart is stronger and can pump more blood with each compression. It is getting more results for less effort, which is what fitness is all about.

But I promised that it would be able to help you decide whether to crush it at the gym or not, didn't I. Well, this requires already knowing your average heart rate. Every morning for a week when you are healthy, take your heart rate and develop an average for you. From then on, every morning you are planning to exercise take your heart rate again. (It can take some practice to remember to take your heart rate before you jump out of bed, but once you get into the habit it works). On any individual day, if your resting heart rate is roughly 10bpm faster than your average, that is an indication your body is struggling. Either you are over training and it hasn't repaired itself properly, or it is fighting off illness. On these days you should only do a light training session if anything at all.

Once you have worked out your resting heart rate, you should look into working out your maximum as well.


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