resting heart rate: a benchmark

Posted on May 31, 2007


heartBoy, there’s nothing so exciting as taking out a watch and a calculator and settling down to do some math, eh? Hoo boy, I’ll bet you’re excited! Well who wouldn’t be?

But there’s a reason I’m making you do your homework (don’t look away from the monitor…I can see you, ya know! I have the ultra-broadband!).

The reason I want you to go through this rather dull exercise (thrill-wise, it’s about on a par with flossing, without the physical risk) is that it will establish in a meaningful way just how fit you are right now, and it will help you judge, month by month, how much fitter/less fit your heart and lungs are getting. If your resting heart rate starts out above average for your age and drops over the next few months as you continue in your fitness program, it means you’ve turned your body around from a stressed system to a healthier one.

So, what is your resting heart rate? It’s simply the number of beats your heart pumps out every sixty seconds (yes, you smartass at the back of the class: this is the same in metric). The fitter your heart is, the less often it has to beat to push blood through your system, because every push is much stronger. The heart is a muscle, and as you work it through aerobic exercise it gets stronger and stronger.

It’s like sending your Grandma up to hit a little T-ball, then swapping her out for Barry Bonds. Same basic equipment, but the fitter one is going to hit the ball a lot farther with every swing. You want to turn Grandma into Barry.

Won’t she be pleased?

So, here’s how to figure out your resting heart rate, and what to do with it once you’ve got it.

  1. get a watch, cellphone, or just double click on the time on your computer to get the date/time thingy to come up. You need something that will display the seconds, not just the minutes, and definitely not one of those very pretty watches with no numbers at all.
  2. sit down and do something boring for a few minutes. Read something dull; listen to the sound of traffic; try to recall the price of milk at Safeway. Whatever. Something that doesn’t make you laugh and doesn’t get you riled, and sit still while you’re doing it; you heard me, no seated yoga! Do this for maybe five minutes or so, whatever. Long enough to get substantially bored and have your body slip into semi-comatose, dull-tv-watching mode.
  3. find your pulse. Assuming you’re alive, it’s there somewhere, although they can be tricky buggers to suss out. Try your right wrist: cup the fingers of your left hand gently around the back of your wrist to the front, with your pointer finger down where you get the wrist wrinkles. Feel around and see if you can find a pulse there; don’t squash hard, or you’ll cut it off! If after a minute or so you can’t find it there, try the neck. Put your left hand around your throat as if you’re going to strangle yourself single-handed. Right around your thumb is where you’ll find the pulse. If you don’t find one there, check yourself in a mirror to make sure you’re not undead or something. Hey, it happens.
  4. now watch that clock. When the digital display clicks over to the start of the Next Minute (00:00) or when the second hand reaches the top of the clock, start counting your heartbeats. Some places will tell you to count six seconds and multiply by ten, some will say ten seconds and multiply by six (those are written by math majors!), but I’m going to say hang in there for a good solid twenty seconds. The longer you count, the more accurate the rating. If the end of twenty seconds happens just as you’re counting a beat, count it anyway. When I do this I get 25; I’ve gotten as low as 22 before, but it’s been a long, hard day.
  5. take that number and multiply it by three. I get 75. That’s your resting heart rate.

You can see that my stressful day has increased my resting heart rate; this is exactly how stress gives you heart attacks. It’s forcing my heart to work much harder than it usually does, and when you overstress a muscle it tends to fail. That would be what a heart attack is.

So, obviously, what I did today? I shouldn’t do that. And don’t you do that either.

Anyway, now that you’ve got your resting heart rate, put it in your blog as a benchmark. I’d recommend tagging it “benchmark” so you can find it again, but you can also keep it more private by not tagging and even password-protecting the post if you want. The point is to record it somewhere so you can find it again in three months or a year and compare your resting heart rate to what it was when you started.

We’re going to be talking a lot more about heart rates in the future, so don’t skip this. It’s important. Hearts are not like baby teeth: you only get one. Don’t break it.

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