Humans have been aware of their heart rate for thousands of years. But knowing the meaning behind the beats isn’t so simple. Exactly what should a healthy person's heart rate be? And what affects it? Let's take a look at the science.
Myriad factors affect our heart rate, including our age, medical conditions, medications, diet, and fitness level. Today, we’re even more aware of our heart rate, thanks to devices such as smartwatches that can measure every beat during rest and exercise. So, what is normal?
How should we measure our heart rate?
Surprisingly, there are over twelve places you can feel your pulse. But there are two that are the easiest and most reliable – the radial artery, which runs along the inside of the forearm from the base of the thumb; and the carotid artery, which runs up the front of the neck two fingers to the side of the Adam’s apple.
The best way to measure heart rate is to sit down for a few minutes and relax, then use two fingers (not your thumb, as its own pulse can confuse your measurement) to gently compress the artery and count the beats over 15 seconds. Multiplying this by four will give your heart rate in beats per minute.
If you’re using the carotid, it’s important to only check one side at a time, and not to massage the artery – this is an area that senses blood pressure flowing through the artery and signals to the heart to keep it in a tight range; stimulating this area can trick it into dropping the heart rate and blood pressure, leading to a blackout.
Your heart runs on electricity – in fact, every single heartbeat is the result of a tiny electrical impulse travelling through your heart muscle. These impulses can be measured using an an electrocardiogram (ECG), which is the most reliable and informative measure of your heart rate. The test is non-invasive, painless, and you can get it at most GP practices and pathology services.
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