When a heart beats, blood is pushed through the body, causing a change in blood pressure and a pulse in main arteries. In healthy individuals, this means the heart rate is often synchronized with the pulse. However, heart rate and pulse rate are technically different because a heart rate measures the rate of contractions (heart beats) of the heart, whereas a pulse rate measures the rate of palpable blood pressure increases throughout the body.
For individuals who have certain heart conditions, the heart may not efficiently push blood through the body with each contraction. These individuals have a pulse that is lower than their heart rate. Other factors affecting heart rate and blood pressure include body mass, athleticism, obesity, medication, alcohol use, and smoking. For most people, each contraction produces a pulse, so the pulse is an effective way to measure heart rate. Baseline heart rates are resting heart rates, measured by taking the pulse.
Each heartbeat creates an arterial blood flow pulse that can be felt on the skin over the artery. Normal, healthy, average heart rates vary by an individual's age, body mass, and fitness level. Other physiological, but not health related, influencers of heart rate (pulse) include air temperature and changing body positions. In hot and humid conditions, the heart may beat faster in response to the physical stressors the heat causes; cold may have the same effect. Alternately, if a person sits or lies down for a period of time, resting heart rate may decrease. When that person stands up, or gets up quickly, the heart rate may jump up as well in order to supply the now-active body's needs.
Average Heart Rate and Pulse
Normal, healthy adults who are reasonably fit and not overweight, and do not smoke or drink heavily, will have resting heart rates between 60 and 100 beats per minute (bpm); their pulse will reflect this. Average, healthy teenager heart rates are the same as those for adults, while children under 10 years of age experience higher heart rates and pulses:
- Newborns (1-30 days old) = 70-190
- Infants (1-11 months = 80-160
- Toddlers (1-2 years old) = 80-130
- Preschoolers (3-4 years old) = 80-120
- Elementary Age (5-10 years) = 70-115
Athletes share the same range with others in their age group, but teen and adults who are excessively active and fit may have resting heart rates and pulses as low as 40 bpm.
If a person's pulse, equivalent to heart rate, is frequently or regularly above or below average for their health and fitness level, there are a variety of reasons this may be the case. Some variations are attributed to positive factors, such as an increase in healthy activity and good stress management. Others variations have negative root causes, like adverse reactions to medications, smoking, and being overweight, and can indicate a potential problem for heart health.
One National Institute of Health (NIH) study that evaluated data from the records of approximately 64,000 children who experienced conditions worthy of an emergency room visit indicated that body temperature had a distinct effect on their heart rates. The UK study showed that a one-degree change in body temperature could increase or lower the pulse by as much as 10 beats per minute.
Resolving unhealthy variables may be as straightforward as combining yoga body movement with meditation to increase core strength and decrease stress, or as simple as layering for changeable weather to reduce body temperature fluctuations. Limiting exposure to non-prescribed chemical influences and maintaining a healthy body weight are also heart healthy.
Beyond exercising for health and fitness, there are a number of activities that cause exertion, everything from sexual relations to standing up quickly from a prone position. For most people, heart rate and pulse will not go above 220 beats/minute during these times, nor should that high of a heart rate be accepted for more than minutes based on activity level and duration as a variety of studies reported by Cleveland Clinic indicate that repetitive, excessive heart rate experienced, for example, by repeat marathon runners, may cause heart muscle damage leading to arrhythmia (irregular heart palpitations) and an assortment of heart conditions.
Exercise Target Zone
For active individuals who want to keep their heart rate in a healthy and sustainable condition while exercising, sports medicine practitioners and the American Heart Association recommend setting a target heart rate, which can be measured by periodic pulse taking. The formula for a person's target heart rate during exercise or sustained exertion is to subtract the individual's age from a heart rate of 220, then keep the pulse within 50 to 100% of that range based on fitness. So, a 50-year-old person who is reasonably fit should consider a target heart rate no higher than 145 bpm.
Body Size, Mass, and Fitness
A person who is very petite and has an average fitness regimen, or who is physically large but not overweight or unhealthy, may have pulses, or heart rates, which fall outside of the normal range. This is not indicative of a health problem; it is just a factor of body mass and, perhaps, corresponding heart size and vascular capacity. However, excessive weight can cause the heart to beat faster at all times, and this condition may lead to tachycardia, a condition characterized by a heart rate that is frequently or regularly 100+ beats per minute. Heart and vascular damage, and even failure can result. Fitness, on the other hand, especially if extreme, may result in a person's resting heart rate being as low as 40 bpm, which is not likely to be an indication of bradycardia, or a regular resting heart rate below 60 bpm in someone who is not athletic.
Health Conditions and Obesity
Health problems, disease, heart conditions, and other afflictions may be indicated by abnormal heart rates or pulses. Anyone who is concerned about his or her pulse and related heart rate should consult a doctor. Addressing the health hot topic of childhood obesity, one study, which looked at medical tests of about 40,000 teens, concluded that obesity increases both hypertension (high blood pressure) and resting heart rate.
Smoking, Medications, Alcoholic Beverages
Prescription medicines, illegal drugs, alcoholic beverages, smoking, and caffeine can affect one's heart rate, sometimes dangerously so. For example, one study published by the National Institute of Health (NIH) compared heart rates in about 300 20-somethings. Resting heart rates for the smoking population were significantly higher than for the non-smokers, and the smokers failed to achieve the desired peak heart rate in a treadmill test, indicating diminished heart rate capacity.
Anyone who is making a change from a sedentary lifestyle to an athletic lifestyle, for example, or who has heart and general health concerns, may benefit from monitoring pulse and corresponding heart rate. For most people, it is easiest to find the pulse in the wrist or on the neck, just below the jaw (carotid artery); pulse can also be felt, though typically not as strongly, on the temple, groin, back of knees, stomach, and even on the inside and top of foot.
To measure pulse and heart rate, place two fingers on the wrist or other pulse location and press gently until a measurable beat is detected. Using a watch or clock, count the heart beats for 30 seconds, then double that number to get the pulse and heart rate per minute. These measurements can be logged at regular intervals with notations about corresponding activity for delivery to a medical practitioner if out-of-norms exist and are a concern.
Alternatively, there are many heart rate (pulse) monitors on the retail market designed primarily for tracking pulse during exercise. Athletes find them useful for evaluating and adjusting fitness and exertion levels. Using trackers, like those made by Fitbit and Jawbone, may also help individuals with abnormal heart rate conditions to determine what causes them. Commercially available products include wristbands, chest straps, and armbands, with most delivering digital readouts.
Watch the video below to learn how to check a heart rate by taking a pulse.
- Adolescent obesity adversely affects blood pressure and resting heart rate - NIH.gov
- All About Heart Rate - American Heart Association
- Can Too Much Extreme Exercise Damage Your Heart? - Cleveland Clinic
- Effects of smoking on heart rate at rest and during exercise, and on heart rate recovery, in young adults - NIH.gov
- New Heart Rate Trackers: Is Knowing Your Pulse Useful? - Live Science
- Pulse (Heart Rate) - NIH.gov
- The relationship between body temperature, heart rate, and respiratory rate in children - NIH.gov
- War and Peace (of Mind): Mindfulness training for military could help them deal with stress - ScienceDaily