What’s a healthy heart rate?

There are lots of ways to lower your heart rate, and many good reasons to do so.

For adults, a resting heart rate should fall between 60 and 100 beats per minute, though what’s considered normal varies from person to person and throughout the day.

An above-normal heart rate can cause a host of problems, including:

  • chest pain
  • weakness
  • fainting
  • lightheadedness
  • heart pain (myocardial ischemia)
  • inadequate blood flow in your arms and legs (peripheral hypoperfusion)
  • low blood pressure

How to check your heart rate

According to certified personal trainer Marianna Johnson, MSW, a good time to check your heart rate is right after you wake up, while you’re still in bed. Johnson, owner of Mind Body Health & Fitness in Falls Church, Virginia, says a midday reading is also fine if taken after a few minutes of rest.

To take your heart rate, place your index and middle finger on your wrist or the side of your neck to locate your pulse. Count the number of beats in a minute.

How to lower your heart rate in the moment

If your heart rate has seemingly spiked without cause, there are a few things you can do to bring it back down to a normal level:

  • Make sure your surroundings are cool and comfortable. High temperatures and humidity can increase blood flow and heart rate.
  • Emotional upset can raise your heart rate. Slow, measured breathing can help bring it back down.
  • If you’re going from sitting to standing, make sure to rise slowly. Standing up too quickly can bring about dizziness and cause your heart rate to increase.

Other approaches can be effective in lowering your heart rate in the short term and over time.

Practicing mindfulness can help lower your heart rate in the moment, as well as lower your overall resting heart rate. After a 12-week mindfulness course, participants in one study had lower heart rates overall and were able to physically cover more distance during a standard six-minute walk test.

If you’re familiar with yoga, practicing a few poses may also help lower your heart rate. Research also suggests that practitioners of yoga can develop the ability to voluntarily lower their heart rate.

Learn more: What’s your ideal heart rate? »

How to lower your heart rate over time

In the long term, the best way to lower your heart rate is by following a program that includes exercise, a healthy diet, limited caffeine and alcohol, and good sleep, suggests Johnson. The exercise component can involve either extended low-intensity sessions or interval training that mixes high- and low-effort episodes, she says.

How does exercise affect heart rate?

It’s important to get your heart rate up while exercising. This strengthens your heart. “The stronger your heart is, the more efficiently it’s pumping blood,” Johnson says. And if your heart’s pumping efficiently, it doesn’t need to beat as quickly when at rest.

The key metric when exercising is identifying your maximum heart rate, usually defined as 220 minus your age. The American Heart Association uses this number to define target heart rate ranges for moderate, intense, and maximum intensity during a workout.

“It’s old school,” concedes Johnson. But it remains the best way to create an exercise program tailored for your specific fitness level and goals.

A second key metric in assessing your heart rate is how fast it returns to normal after vigorous exercise. A prompt recovery to your pre-exercise heart rate is generally linked to numerous health benefits, including lower risk of death. As we age, it takes the heart longer to return to a normal heart rate. This is true even for healthy people.

In one large study, researchers analyzed the exercise recovery patterns and risk of death of about 2,500 people who had no existing cardiac conditions. The participants exercised to exhaustion, and researchers measured their heart rates after one minute of rest. The recovery was considered normal if the heart rate dropped more than 12 beats per minute between the moment of peak exercise and the end of the rest period. Otherwise, the recovery was labeled abnormal.

After six years, the risk of death for people with an abnormal recovery was about four times that of those with a normal heart rate recovery. The risk of death decreased with better heart rate recovery scores. The health benefits associated with vigorous exercise maxed out at a drop of about 15 to 20 beats per minute.

Check out: A list of 14 types of cardio exercises to get you moving »

Foods that lower heart rate

Diet also seems to have an effect on your heart rate. A cross-sectional analysis of about 10,000 European men without heart disease showed that eating fish was associated with a decreased heart rate. Fish consumption was still an important factor in lowering heart rate when the study adjusted for age, physical activity, smoking, and several other factors.

What causes your heart rate to rise?

Most instances of a sudden spike in heart rate come from faster-than-normal impulses from the sinus node, the heart’s natural pacemaker. This situation is called sinus tachycardia. In this case, the heartbeat is fast, but normal.

The American Heart Association notes that sinus tachycardia can arise from several different conditions, including:

  • fever
  • anxiety
  • some medical and street drugs
  • severe emotional distress
  • fright
  • strenuous exercise

It results less commonly from:

  • anemia
  • increased thyroid activity
  • heart muscle damage from heart failure or a heart attack
  • severe bleeding

Doctors address sinus tachycardia by going after the cause. For example, they may prescribe psychological care for anxiety and other types of emotional distress. Physiological conditions such as anemia or thyroid problems will require medical treatment.

In some cases, it’s impossible to link sinus tachycardia back to a source. This type of so-called “inappropriate” sinus tachycardia is a difficult condition to treat. In the long run, it can cause significant medical problems.

In other cases of elevated heart rates, the rhythm is both fast and irregular. These conditions are potentially serious and should be evaluated by your doctor.

Can an elevated heart rate lead to any complications?

If tachycardia is left untreated, your risk of complication increases. Complications vary according to the rate and duration of your increased heart rate, as well as the presence of any other medical conditions.

Possible complications include:

  • frequent fainting
  • blood clots, which can lead to a stroke or heart attack
  • heart failure

In rare cases, sudden death is possible. This is typically only associated with ventricular tachycardia.

Ventricular tachycardia is when the ventricles (lower part) of your heart beat faster than normal. This can lead to more severe dysrhythmias, preventing your heart from pumping blood efficiently to the body and brain.

The bottom line

An elevated heart rate can signal a serious medical condition or be a concern in its own right. If your doctor’s ruled out any underlying condition for a rapid heart rate, then exercise, yoga, and numerous other strategies can help lower your heart rate in both the moment and over the long run.

Keep reading: Target heart rate in pregnancy »