Why and how to check your heart rate

13th January, 2023 • 6 min read

All of us – regardless of how fit we are – should keep tabs on our heart rate. Your heart rate is the number of times your heart beats per minute (bpm). “Checking it at rest and when you’re exercising can be a handy health MOT,” says Dr. Ann Nainan, Healthily expert. The test is simple and easy to do.

Why check your heart rate?

It’s useful to know what your normal heart rate is, so you can monitor any changes that could be a sign of health problems. Dr Ann says, “When you measure your heart rate, there are two key stats you’re looking for: resting heart rate and target heart rate. Both can tell you about your heart function and fitness. And knowing your target heart rate allows you to see how your heart responds to exercise, so you can get fitter safely, without overdoing it.”

What is resting heart rate and target heart rate definition?

  • resting heart rate – this is when your heart pumps the lowest amount of blood you need around your body because you’re not doing anything active. A normal resting heart rate is between 60-100 bpm. For most people, the lower, the better – it means you have good heart function and cardiovascular fitness
  • target heart rate – this is what your heart rate should be during exercise, so you’re getting a good workout that benefits your heart, but safely. Your target heart rate can also help you track your fitness over time. You’re aiming for a figure between 50-70% of your maximum heart rate. If it goes very high during exercise, it can be a sign of an underlying problem. Find more detail on what your target heart rate should be for your age

Check your heart rate at home

You can check your resting heart rate in 2 ways:

  • using your own fingers to take your pulse
  • using wearable devices and other tools. “There are lots of tools you can buy to help monitor your heart rate. You might already have a fitness watch or a smartwatch that can do this for you,” says Dr Ann. You can also get chest-strap monitors, and an electronic home blood pressure monitor will measure your heart rate too

You’ll need a wearable device to check your target heart rate while you’re exercising.

What’s most accurate?

Wearable heart rate trackers aren’t always as accurate as medical devices your doctor might use to measure your heart rate. But most research has found they’re usually very accurate, with chest-strap trackers slightly more likely to get it right. There isn’t clear research so far comparing trackers with using your fingers. But it’s important to be aware there’s room for user error when you do it with your fingers – you may count wrong, for example. Still, if you do it properly you should be able to get a good reading and there are other reasons doctors use it e.g. pick up irregular rhythm, and there’s no need to buy a tracker especially to do it.

How to calculate resting heart rate with fingers

The best time to measure resting heart rate is when you’ve just woken up or have been sitting still for a while. To do this, you need to measure the pulse in your wrist. Here’s how:

  • turn one hand palm-side up
  • place the first two fingers of the opposite hand at the base of your thumb – don’t use your thumb as it has its own pulse
  • when you feel your pulse, count the number of beats in 15 seconds or 30 seconds – use a timer on your phone to keep track
  • now multiply this number by 4 or 2 to calculate your beats per minute – this is your resting heart rate
  • it’s best to take it a few times to get an average reading

What your resting heart rate means

While your resting heart rate should be between 60 and 100 bpm, a normal resting heart rate can vary from person to person, depending on lifestyle factors like whether you drink alcohol or smoke, and other things like how fit and active you are – an athlete heart rate will be lower, for example. There are also heart rate gender differences, with men usually having slightly lower heart rates. Your heart rate can change at different times of day, too. It will be faster when you’re exercising compared with when you’re asleep, for example. Find out more about what affects your heart rate.

How to lower your heart rate if you need to

If your resting heart rate is higher than average for your sex or age – and you’ve taken the test a few times and got the same result – there are a number of steps you can take:

  • increase your physical activity. “Your heart is a muscle and like any muscle in your body, it needs exercise to stay fit and healthy,” says Dr. Ann. “Do any activity that gets your heart rate up, such as brisk walking, swimming, or cycling. Over time, exercise then lowers your heart rate”

Regular exercise can also improve your sleep, mood, and energy levels. If you’re new to exercise or returning after some time off, make sure you start slowly and build up safely, and if you have any health problems see a doctor to make sure it’s safe for you to start pushing your heart

Other ways to lower your resting heart rate include:

  • losing weight, if you need to
  • switching to a healthy, balanced diet
  • cutting down or cutting out drinking alcohol
  • quitting smoking
  • tackling any sources of stress
  • talking to your doctor about alternative medication
  • getting enough sleep

When to see your doctor

  • make an appointment to see your doctor if your resting heart rate is always below 60 bpm (and you’re not an athlete) or above 100 bpm
  • see your doctor urgently if you have palpitations, feel lightheaded, short of breath, or have chest pains – these could be signs of an irregular heart beat (arrhythmia). You can sometimes get palpitations due to menopause, or stress and anxiety
  • but sometimes, you may need treatment to help regulate your heartbeat and make sure any underlying causes are treated to reduce any risks of stroke or other health issues if you’re not pumping enough oxygen-rich blood around your body
  • you should also see your doctor if your tracker or blood pressure monitor shows an abnormal heart rhythm, even if you don’t have obvious symptoms

Important: Our website provides useful information but is not a substitute for medical advice. You should always seek the advice of your doctor when making decisions about your health.