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How to Take your Heart Rate...and Why


"My heart was just racing!"

"It felt like my heart was going to leap out of my chest!"

"Doc, is my heart beat normal?"

If you've ever said or wondered any of these things, chances are that you would benefit from knowing how to take your own heart rate. One of the easiest forms of feedback is just taking your pulse.

There are lots of things that make our hearts beat faster or slower. It’s good to have a baseline to know what’s normal for you. Knowing your beats per minute (BPM) under certain situations will help you know your limitations, especially when it comes to exercise.You can take your BPM by holding a pulse point and counting the heart beats for on minute.

There are three numbers that everyone should know: 
Normal resting heart rate
Maximum heart rate 
Target heart rate.

The best time to get a valid resting heart rate is first thing in the morning before you rise. Take your heart rate at your radial pulse.  For most of us, that’s the pulse point at your wrist. The best way to find the strongest pulse is to relax your hand on which you’re taking the pulse. Take your middle and index figure of the other hand lightly between the tendons you feel on the inside edge of your wrist under the thumb. Never use your thumb to take a pulse because it has a strong pulse of its own. Never grab around your neck to take a pulse because it’s too easy to squeeze too hard on major arteries. It’s good to take your resting heart rate on three consecutive mornings and take the average reading. You will count the number of beats in one minute so you’ll need a watch or clock handy. Heart rate readings, like blood pressure readings, are just a snapshot in time. When you’ve rushed to get to your doctor’s office and your heart is pounding due to increased anxiety as you sit there in the waiting room, what’s the first thing he/she does?  He/She should take your resting pulse, but everyone knows it’s not really taken at rest under such conditions.

Your maximum heart rate is always 220 minus your age. If you are forty years old, your maximum heart rate is 180 beats per minute. You never want to work at your maximum heart rate.

Take this little quiz: If you're forty years old, you’re on the treadmill at the gym, you put your thumb on the little heart rate monitor on the machine while you’re running, and it says 180, what should you do?

  • Slow down to a walk even if you feel fine
  • Stop running immediately and go sit down
  • Keep running, just get off the machine and go use the track
  • Drink more water

The answer is (a) slow down to a walk even if you feel fine. After about 15 seconds, take your heart rate again and breathe well. If it has not changed, walk very slowly.  Take it again in 15 seconds. If your heart rate is not coming back down, you need to seek attention from the staff. What if the monitor on the machine is broken or there isn’t one? That’s when you need to know how to find your own target heart rate.

Your training or target heart rate is a percentage of your maximum heart rate. Let’s say your maximum heart rate is 180.  If you’re just starting an exercise program, you should be working in the lower range, near 50% of your maximum, or 90 bpm. If you’re very fit and have been exercising a while, you could be working in the upper range, at about 80% of your maximum, or 144 bpm. 

How do you take your heart rate while you’re exercising? You keep walking, or at least keep your legs moving so your blood doesn’t pool in your extremities. Then, you find your carotid pulse by putting your middle and index fingers lightly to the side of your throat, under your ear, and behind your jaw. Take this pulse only 10 seconds. Why? Because a healthy heart should start to recovery back down closer to resting levels within a few seconds. The number you get in 10 seconds is multiplied by six to give you its equivalent for a full minute.

Quiz: Your maximum heart rate is 180, you’re fit and you’d like to keep your training heart rate at around 80%. After about 20 minutes in aerobics class, you take your ten-second carotid pulse and find it’s 21. You feel fine so what should you do?

  • Slow down to a walk
  • Work a little more intensely
  • Completely ignore taking your heart rate because you’re feeling fine
  • Drink more water

The answer is (b) work a little more intensely. The math is 21 x 6 = 126 bpm, and also .80 x 180 = 144. You’d work more intensely if you feel good and know that you could get your heart rate up a little further. The risk of not taking your heart rate if you’re feeling fine is that you don’t really know if you’re pushing it. This is especially true if you’re on any kind of medication, such as allergy medication or if the environment is especially hot and/or humid.  Drinking more water at a break is always good practice.


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