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12/08/2016 01:50 pm ET Updated Dec 09, 2016

This Number Can Say A Lot About Your Health. Do You Know What It Is?

Of all the measurements associated with your health, resting heart rate doesn't get much attention. But research suggests that it should.
Photo Anne Clarkistockphoto

First thing–figure out what your resting heart rate (RHR) is today: Pick a time when you feel relaxed (so not right after a tense meeting) and haven’t had caffeine within an hour or exercised within two hours, because both can leave your heart rate elevated. Then, find a pulse point on your neck or wrist, count the beats for 10 seconds and multiply the number of beats by 6.

If you got between 50 and 60 beats per minute, “that’s a very good range,” says Gordon Blackburn, MD, head of cardiac rehabilitation at the Cleveland Clinic. For every 10 beats it goes up, your risk of coronary artery disease rises by 12 percent, stroke by 5 percent and non-cardiovascular disease by 16 percent, according to a meta-analysis in the Canadian Medical Association Journal. Once you’re over 80 beats per minute, the risk of those problems rises pretty dramatically.

Another study in Heart followed 3,000 men for 16 years and found that having a resting heart rate between 81 and 90 doubled subjects’ chances of dying during the study, while a RHR of more than 90 tripled it; maybe not surprisingly, higher RHRs were linked to poor physical fitness, higher weight and blood pressure and more unhealthy fats in the blood.

It’s important to note that these studies show a link between high RHR and health problems, not a direct cause-and-effect relationship, but, says Blackburn, “there’s a consistent correlation.” Think of it this way: A high RHR doesn’t lead to health problems on its own, but it could tip you off that there are some underlying issues going on in your body that you should pay attention to.

Ask your doctor about your RHR; she can walk you through the many factors that affect it. (That’s actually good news, says Blackburn, because if you want to lower your RHR, you can come at it from a few different angles.) Exercise is key, and one study in the Journal of Human Hypertension found that high-intensity aerobic workouts are more effective in lowing heart rate than the same duration of lower-intensity exercise (which may be why elite athletes tends to have very low RHR). Getting stress under control can help, too, as can maintaining a healthy weight and logging seven to eight hours of sleep per night.

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