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What Your Heart Rate Says About Your Health

Learn about your resting heart rate and what too fast and too slow can mean

Heart Rate on Yellow Background
Jay Radhakrishnan / Getty Images

You probably already know several key numbers about your health: your weight, your blood pressure, your cholesterol and blood glucose levels, and possibly even your waist circumstance. But there’s another one that you should add to your list: your heart rate.

"If it’s too low, or too high, it can indicate heart problems,” says Michael LaMonte, research professor of epidemiology and environmental health at the University of Buffalo School of Public Health and Health Professions and spokesperson for the American Heart Association. “But it can also be tricky, since your heart rate can be impacted by a lot of different things, including environmental conditions such as heat, humidity or cold.” Here’s a look at what an ideal heart rate is, and what a rate too high or too low may mean for you.

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So, what’s your ideal heart rate, really?

The American Heart Association says anything between 60 and 100 beats per minute at rest is considered normal. But on the lower end is better — it means that your heart muscle is in better shape, so that it doesn’t have to work as hard to beat regularly, says cardiologist Nieca Goldberg, M.D., medical director of Atria NYC and clinical associate professor of medicine at the NYU Grossman School of Medicine. Research shows, for example, that men with a resting heart rate of over 90 beats per minute had three times the risk of death from any cause compared to men whose heart rate was less than 50.

Heart rate by the numbers

Resting: 60 and 100 beats per minute

Athletes: may have a lower resting heart rate

Moderate workouts: 50%-70% of the maximum for your age

Intense workouts: 70%-85% of maximum for your age

Maximum heart rate: about 220 minus your age

Source: American Heart Association

That’s why some cardiologists say that the lower, the better. “I consider a normal heart rate to be between 45 and 85 beats per minute,” says Walid Saliba, M.D., a cardiologist and director of the Electrophysiology Lab at the Cleveland Clinic. “If you’re sitting and not doing anything, a heart rate of 100 beats per minute is abnormal.” On the flip side, he adds, if you’re athletic and very well-conditioned, there should be no alarm bells ringing if your resting heart rate is just 45 bpm. (Lance Armstrong reportedly once had a resting heart rate of only about 32 bpm.)

What does a heart rate too fast or too slow mean?

If you’re not an uber athlete, your doctor will most likely want to investigate why your heart rate is too fast or too slow. There are a few medical reasons your heart rate may be high, Saliba says. They include:

• Thyroid disease. If you are hyperthyroid, which means your body produces too much thyroid hormone, your heart will beat harder and faster, and you may experience abnormal heart rhythms.

• Anemia. Anemia, or low blood iron, rises with age: About 7 percent of men and women ages 65-74 have it, as do about 40 percent of men and 22 percent of women over age 85. The iron is needed to transport oxygen throughout the body. When you have anemia, your heart pumps more blood to make up for the lack of oxygen in it, Saliba says.

• Atrial fibrillation. This condition, which causes an irregular and rapid heart rhythm, occurs more frequently with age. It’s present in about 4 percent of people in their 60s, and may rise to about 17 percent in those over age 80. During A-fib, your heart’s atria, or upper chambers, beat very irregularly, which can cause heart palpitations along with shortness of breath and feeling weak.

• Certain OTC drugs. If you’ve been taking an over-the-counter medication that contains pseudoephedrine (like Sudafed), you may experience an increased heart rate, LaMonte says. These effects are usually temporary and go away once you stop taking these meds.

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On the flip side, a too slow heart rate, a condition known as bradycardia, also becomes more common as you get older. “As some people age, the wiring of the electrical conduction system of their heart frays,” says Joyce Oen-Hsiao, M.D., a cardiologist at the Yale School of Medicine in New Haven, Connecticut. This can cause the heart’s normal rhythm to slow down. This can also happen if you develop hypothyroidism, a condition where your body produces too little thyroid hormone, or take certain blood pressure medications such as beta-blockers and calcium channel blockers. LaMonte says he even sees this in people who otherwise have a very healthy heart.

If your heart rate is either too slow or too fast, your doctor will want to run more tests to investigate, Goldberg says. The first step is usually an electrocardiogram (EKG), which is a test to measure the electrical signals in your heart to make sure they are working correctly. After that, your doctor may recommend an echocardiogram, or heart ultrasound, she adds. If those don’t provide answers, you may need to wear a 24-hour heart monitor.

If you have an underlying condition such as hyperthyroidism, anemia or A-fib, the heart rate issue will usually resolve once the disease itself has been treated. If you have bradycardia that isn’t caused by medications, your doctor may want to implant a pacemaker, a device that sends electrical signals to your heart to speed it up.

Are fitness trackers accurate for heart rate?

Devices like Apple watches, Fitbits and Google Pixel watches can alert you if your heart rate is too high or too slow. But you should take the results with a grain of salt, says Oen-Hsiao. Research suggests that they are fairly accurate: A 2019 study published in JMIR mHealth, for example, found that the Apple Watch 3 was about 95 percent accurate, and the Fitbit Charge 2 was about 91 percent accurate, when compared with an ECG across 24 hours.

Oen-Hsiao says tracking devices can be good if you have an underlying condition such as atrial fibrillation, but you don’t want to drive yourself crazy tracking data. "You want your heart rate to stay roughly in the same range, without huge fluctuations. Just remember, some variation is normal. It’s also normal for your heart rate to drop when you’re sleeping," she notes. But if you do use a fitness tracker and notice that your heart rate seems off, bring it up to your doctor, she stresses. The doctor can always put a cardiac monitor on you to wear at home, to make sure everything is OK.

One time when it’s good to keep tabs on your heart rate is during your workouts. Goldberg says that in general, you want your heart rate to be in the zone of 80 to 85 percent of the maximum heart rate for your age. (The American Heart Association recommends 70 to 85 percent of maximum for your age for an intense workout.) You can find target heart rate zones for your age group in the chart below. Keep in mind that this is just a guide: If you’re on medication that lowers your heart rate, you may not reach your target goal, and that’s OK, Goldberg says.

How to find your target heart rate

Your target heart rate during moderate-intensity activities should be about 50 percent to 70 percent of maximum heart rate, while during vigorous physical activity it’s about 70 percent to 85 percent of maximum, according to the American Heart Association.

                  Target Heart Rate Chart
Age   Target Zone     Maximum   
45 years             88-149 bpm            175 bpm         
50 years    85-145 bpm  170 bpm
55 years  83-140 bpm  165 bpm
60 years  80-136 bpm  160 bpm
65 years  78-132 bpm  155 bpm
70 years  75-128 bpm  150 bpm

Source: American Heart Association

Note: These numbers are based on averages, so use them as a general guide. Talk to your doctor before starting new workouts and/or if you have any concerns about your heart rate.

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Outside of the gym, it’s a good idea to adopt activities that promote a healthy heart rate. This includes:

 Avoid caffeine and nicotine. Both can drive your heart rate up. (An occasional cup of coffee is fine, notes LaMonte, as long as your heart rate is within normal levels. But if you do have a high heart rate, talk to your doctor.)

 Drink water. When you’re dehydrated, your blood thickens, which means your heart has to work harder. Avoid too much alcohol, which can dehydrate you and elevate your heart rate.

 Keep periodic tabs on your heart rate. If you don’t have a wearable activity tracker, you can do it yourself: The American Heart Association recommends that you place the tips of your first two fingers on your pulse on the inside of your wrist, on the thumb side. Count the pulse for 30 seconds and multiply by 2 to find your bpm.