You’ve probably slid a blood pressure cuff onto an arm at least a few times in your life. You’ve also probably had a doctor time your pulse while at a check-up. There are lots of numbers that can tell you a something about your health, but two of the most common are resting heart rate (RHR) and blood pressure.
You might know a little about these two components of heart health, but it’s hard to keep every test and reading straight. Andrew Freeman, MD, a cardiologist and director of Cardiovascular Prevention and Wellness at National Jewish Health in Denver, Colorado, breaks down exactly what those two seemingly-similar readings are, and why they’re so important.
What Is Resting Heart Rate (RHR)?
Resting heart rate can also be referred to as “pulse,” says Freeman, and it’s a measurement that indicates how efficiently your heart is working. “It’s simply a marker of how many times per minute your heart is pumping blood,” he explains. “It’s also a number that responds the fastest to an increase in demand on the heart, like if you have a fever or start to exercise.”
The “normal” range for an average heart is between 60 and 100. “Resting heart rate is never constant, although it typically falls somewhere in the 60s or 70s,” Freeman explains. “Elite athletes might have a slower RHR in the 30s or upper 40s.” Doctors can also use your resting heart rate to get a sense if your heart might be straining too much, due to illness or another stressor, or it’s not working hard enough, and then recommend clinical tests, such as an electrocardiogram, or EKG, to check for underlying health conditions.
How to measure: Keep track of your RHR overtime in your Fitbit app with a PurePulse-enabled Fitbit tracker, like the Fitbit Alta HR, Fitbit Charge 2, or Fitbit Blaze. Or you can measure it manually: Take your pulse for 15 seconds, either at the wrist or alongside the windpipe. Multiply that number by 4.
What Is Blood Pressure?
Blood pressure is a measurement of the force acting upon the walls of your arteries, which is why “high blood pressure” is referred to as hypertension. The measurement is taken in two numbers: systolic blood pressure / diastolic blood pressure. “You’re measuring the peak blood pressure when the heart squeezes,” Freeman explains.
A normal reading is roughly 120/80 or a bit lower, and that top number is what’s most commonly in flux. “We start to get concerned when that number is in the 130s, and think about treatment when it’s above 140,” says Freeman. “We’re not exactly sure why blood pressure rises, but we do know the risk factors. Sedentary lifestyle, too much salt and too much stress can all increase those numbers.” Additionally, although some might experience mild symptoms, like headaches, hypertension is often called “the silent killer,” because symptoms are usually nonexistent—that’s why it’s important to check that number regularly.
How to measure: Every few months or so, get a new reading. In addition to the doctor’s office, some pharmacies offer blood pressure readings. Cuffs can also be purchased for at-home readings.
How to Have Healthy Heart Numbers
Since the heart is involved in nearly all bodily functions, it’s important to keep that hard-working muscle primed and healthy. Freeman says experts have discovered four ways to positively impact your cardiovascular function:
#1: Diet. An “unprocessed plant-based diet” is the best way to eat for a healthy heart, says Freeman. Reduce the amount of fatty foods in your diet, and increase the amount of plant-based foods, like fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes and whole grains. “Most of us aren’t nearly eating the fruits and vegetables we should be,” says Freeman.
#2: Exercise. Your heart needs to pump to get healthier, and this means “30 minutes of brisk activity a day,” says Freeman. “It doesn’t matter what age you are. Get moving, in a way that you’re mildly short of breath for at least a half hour.”
#3: Unwind. Stress is unavoidable: work gets crazy, the kids are sick, you fight with your best friend. And that stress will tax your heart, raise your blood pressure and put you at risk for various cardiovascular conditions. “Focus on 30 minutes a day of mindful practice, whether that’s meditating, praying, or reading,” he says. “Whatever helps you relax and unwind.”
#4: Support. The heart represents love, which is a good way to remember that you need to focus on people and relationships to have the healthiest cardiac functioning. “We’re not totally sure why, but those who don’t have love and support, and those who suffer from loneliness, tend to have poor outcomes,” says Freeman. Make sure to spend time with loved ones, make new friends, and join into the community.
It’s important to have a lot of awareness when it comes to your body, both in the impact of your actions and ways to counteract everyday stressors. Monitor your key health metrics, add simple positive habits into your lifestyle, and you’re already on your way to a much healthier heart.
This article is not intended to substitute for informed medical advice. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat a health problem or condition. Always check with your doctor before changing your diet, altering your sleep habits, taking supplements, or starting a new fitness routine.