What Is a Heart Rate?

Heart rate is a measurement tool that determines how fast the heart is beating. Typically, the concept is expressed by the number of beats or pulses over a given amount of time, such as beats per minute (BPM). Understanding the rate at which the heart is beating can be important to athletes as a measurement of exertion, but may also be useful to doctors in understanding the health of a patient.

Although the medical explanation of what a heartbeat does can be quite complex; essentially, the heart beats faster when the body needs more oxygen. The need for oxygen can change based on a variety of factors, such as current activity, heart condition, or general health. Monitoring this rate can allow a person to know how hard the heart is working to provide oxygenated blood throughout the entire body.

There are a variety of ways to measure the rate of heart beats, though many basic methods provide only a general range of rate. The simplest way to measure BPM is by finding a pulse point on the body. The most easily located are generally on the wrist directly below the first finger, or on the side of the throat. These points are on shallow arteries that bulge when blood passes through them, creating a steady beat, or pulse. To measure heart rate using a pulse point, count how many beats occur in six seconds. Multiply that number by ten, and it will give a good estimate of the BPM.

When the body is at rest, such as sitting or sleeping for a long period, heart rate tends to be low. This is called the resting heart rate, and in most people it is between 60-100 BPM. Some athletes or very fit adults may have a lower resting rate, which is usually a sign of excellent cardiovascular health. People with an unusually low heart rate may have a condition called bradycardia, which can cause health problems, as the heart is not able to transmit enough oxygen throughout the body. Those with an unusually high resting rate may suffer from tachycardia, which may increase the risk of heart attack or stroke.

For athletes, measuring heart rate helps keep track of their exertion level and performance. Heart rate training for exercises involves finding out what the maximum healthy heart rate is for someone's age and fitness level, then trying to keep the heart beating at a certain percentage of the maximum during a workout. For instance, health and fitness experts say that more fat is burned when the heart is beating at 60% of the exerciser's maximum recommended rate. At 70%-80%, although the person is working harder, more carbohydrates are burned instead of fat. The percentage that an athlete tries to achieve is often called the target heart rate.