Your resting heart rate can tell you a lot about how fit you are—and perhaps some other things about your health. Resting heart rate refers to the number of times your heart beats per minute when you are at rest; 50 to 100 is considered normal, though most people fall in the 60-to-80 range.
Resting heart rate varies from person to person and even over the course of the day, due to genetics and other factors, such as temperature. In general, slower is better, since a heart rate faster than necessary for good health puts unneeded stress on blood vessels and the heart. People who do aerobic exercise (such as jogging or cycling) and become very fit tend to have a lower resting heart rate because such activities strengthen the heart, so it pumps more blood with each contraction.
On the flip side, a growing body of research has been finding an association between faster resting heart rate and increased risk of heart disease and premature death, independent of fitness level and other known cardiovascular risk factors, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol and being overweight.
Recently, a Danish study published in the journal Heart, which followed 2,798 healthy middle-aged and older men for 16 years, found that for every 10-beats-per-minute increase over 50, the risk of death rose by 16 percent, after other factors that can affect heart rate were accounted for.
“These results suggest that in healthy subjects, elevated resting heart rate is not merely a marker of poor general fitness but an independent risk factor,” the researchers concluded.
Previous studies have linked higher resting heart rate to poorer health outcomes in both healthy people and those with heart disease, and in both men and women. According to a review paper in Progress in Cardiovascular Diseases a few years ago, resting heart rate may be a better predictor of premature death than cholesterol and blood pressure—though there’s no consensus on what an optimal heart rate is and where increased health risks begin.
Bottom line: If your resting heart rate is at the high end of the normal range, talk to your doctor. If you are physically fit, there may not be anything you need to (or can) do about it, but it can serve as one more piece of information your doctor can use in evaluating your heart disease risk and how to best manage your overall health. If you are not in good physical condition, aerobic exercise may bring down your resting heart rate somewhat over time—this is called the “training effect”—though it may take a long time for this to occur, and not every exerciser experiences it.