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What does your resting heart rate tell you?

Consumer Reports News: February 24, 2009 03:14 PM

Your resting heart rate is the speed at which your heart beats when you're relaxing. For most people, it's between 60 and 80 beats per minute, although this varies according to age. According to the American Heart Association, the best way time to measure your resting heart rate is first thing in the morning, after a good night's sleep, before you get out of bed.

Your resting heart rate can give you a rough idea of how fit you are. In general, the better shape you're in, the lower your resting heart rate will be. Top athletes often have a heart rate that's lower than average.

Research in the past has found that men with a faster resting heart rate have a higher risk of a heart attack. It wasn't clear whether the same is true for women, although a new study suggests it might be. Researchers looked at almost 130,000 healthy, postmenopausal women from all over the United States. At the start of the study, everyone had their pulse taken after resting for five minutes. The women were then followed up for around seven years.

The women were divided into five groups based on their resting heart rate. The bottom four groups, with heart rates ranging from less than 62 beats per minute up to 76 beats per minute, all had about the same chance of getting a heart attack. Women in the top group, who all had a resting heart rate faster than 76 beats per minute, had a slightly higher risk.

However, the increase in risk was small. Among women over the age of 65 with a heart rate of less than 62 beats per minute, there were about 37 heart attacks each year for every 10,000 women. In the group with a heart rate of more 76 beats per minute, 54 out of 10,000 women had a heart attack each year.

Women's resting heart rate also had a relatively small effect on their risk of a heart attack compared with other factors, such as smoking or having high blood pressure or diabetes. Eating lots of saturated fat was also liked to a higher risk, but exercise had a protective effect.

So, it seems that your pulse rate is a rough-and-ready way of getting some information about your risk of a heart attack, but it's not nearly the most important factor. For example, in the study, simply growing older by five years affected women's chances of a heart attack more than their heart rate.

What you need to know. A higher resting heart rate seems to be linked to a higher risk of a heart attack, in both men and postmenopausal women. But other factors play a much bigger part, such as smoking, getting older, and having high blood pressure or diabetes. The study also confirms what we already know: Exercise helps to keep your heart healthy.

Philip Wilson, patient editor, BMJ Group has partnered with The BMJ Group to monitor the latest medical research and assess the evidence to help you decide which news you should use. 

For more information, see our risk factors for heart attack and our new Ratings for heart-rate monitors (subscribers only). And for more on staying fit and healthy (on a budget), see our do-it-yourself guide to exercise and dieting.

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