We’re all familiar with using heart rate monitors, smartwatches, and the old two-finger method to ensure our heart rate is increasing while working out. But did you know that exercise can benefit your resting heart rate and consequently, your overall health? Here, we break down the facts about resting heart rate and how to lower resting heart rate with exercise.
What Is Resting Heart Rate?
Your resting heart rate is the number of times your heart beats per minute when your body is at complete rest, according to the American Heart Association (AHA). This number should be much lower than if you were physically active or moving around because it’s a reflection of the heart pumping the lowest amount of blood you need.
Ideally, you take this measurement before getting out of bed in the morning, when your body is rested and calm. Generally, a normal resting heart rate is between 60 and 100 beats per minute, according to the AHA.
While a lower heart rate is often associated with better health or higher exercise levels, it could also be on the low end if you take certain medications or have a fever, thyroid abnormalities, anemia, pain, or dehydration, says Robert Pilchik, MD, a board-certified cardiologist with Manhattan Cardiology.
What Influences Resting Heart Rate?
Here are some factors that may affect resting heart rate:
Your body position matters when you take your pulse. For best results, stay seated until you’re done.
Higher air temperature and humidity may increase your pulse.
Emotions such as stress, excitement, and anxiety can speed up your resting heart rate.
Athletes and highly active people may have a lower resting heart rate because their heart muscle has become more efficient.
Medications like beta blockers can slow your heart rate, while high doses of thyroid meds may increase it.
What’s the Connection Between Health and Resting Heart Rate?
Endurance athletes will tell you that they monitor resting heart rate as part of their training. But even a more casual athlete can benefit from being aware of their resting heart rate.
“Keeping an eye on resting heart rate is important because it indicates cardiovascular health, stress, fitness levels, and metabolic health,” says Sanjeev Joseph, PT, MSPT, and multi-unit owner for FYZICAL Therapy & Balance Centers.
Joseph explains that resting heart rate serves as an immediate and reliable measurement that can help determine the effects of lifestyles, activities, medications, and changes in health status. “This real-time data is one of the most useful tools to assist in health improvement,” he says.
Plus, research shows that an exercise-related decrease in resting heart rate may contribute to (or at least indicate) an increase in life expectancy.
How to Measure Your Resting Heart Rate
You can measure your resting heart rate using any point on the body where an artery’s pulsation is close to the surface. This includes the radial (wrist) and carotid (neck) artery. When measuring your own pulse, you can use either the radial or carotid artery. If you’re measuring another person's pulse, you may find it more comfortable to use the radial artery.
It’s recommended to take your resting heart rate before getting out of bed in the morning or after you’ve been resting for a while. To measure your resting heart rate using the radial artery, rotate your right hand so the palm is facing up. The radial artery is on the thumb side of your wrist. Place the tips of your left index and middle finger on the artery and press lightly until you feel the pulse. Count for a full 60 seconds.
If you’re measuring the pulse at the carotid site, place your index and middle finger on the artery and press lightly until you feel the pulse. The carotid artery is located on the side of your neck, just below your jawbone. Count for a full 60 seconds.
Is There an Ideal Resting Heart Rate?
“Normal heart rate is considered to be between 60 and 100 beats per minute,” says Dr. Pilchik. Generally speaking, the closer your heart rate is to 60 beats per minute, the more fit you are, and the closer you are to 100 beats per minute, the less fit you are—but there are always exceptions to this. That’s because everyone is individual and might have different heart rate guidelines, so it’s always a good idea to talk with your physician or another healthcare provider if you have questions or live with a chronic condition that may affect your resting heart rate.
Does Exercise Lower Your Resting Heart Rate?
Yes, exercise can help lower your resting heart rate through certain physiologic adaptations.
“By increasing loads for sustained periods, the heart works hard and, in return, gains endurance and strength,” Joseph says. “More specifically, your heart gets conditioned to do its job better, which is to pump oxygenated blood from the lungs to the rest of the body.”
This results in an improvement in the efficiency of the heart’s capacity to send more blood to the body with fewer pumps, which Joseph equates to a world-class sprinter finishing a 100-meter dash with fewer strides than a beginner because they’re quicker, stronger, and more efficient.
Additionally, Dr. Pilchik says stroke volume, which is the amount of blood pumped out of the heart with each beat, is increased during exercise, thereby increasing the amount of oxygen and nutrients received by the rest of the body without having to increase the heart rate.
He also points out that exercise induces an increase in the amount of oxygen-carrying red blood cells the body produces, allowing the heart to deliver the same amount of oxygen without increasing heart rate. “These two adaptations allow the heart to meet the metabolic demands of the body at a lower heart rate,” he says.
What Are the Best Types of Exercise to Lower Heart Rate?
You might be wondering if certain exercises are better than others to lower your resting heart rate, or if all physical activity is beneficial. Disciplines like meditation can lower your heart rate in the moment, while more intense exercises will raise it for a short time. But if your goal is to lower your resting heart rate over the long term, there are a few types of exercise that you should try.
“Most exercises will lower the heart rate over time, but some work better than others,” says Joseph. The exercises that yield the best results, he says, are often aerobic in nature, where the body’s demand for oxygen is sustained or increased over a longer period.
“In other words, the body is starving of oxygen during a sustained period, which results in the body creating efficiencies by coordinating the many systems of the body to deliver a higher level of oxygen by way of the heart pumping more blood with fewer strokes or pumps,” says Joseph.
Aerobic exercises are excellent for this sort of delivery, he says, because they engage multiple muscles over a sustained period. “The longer you can sustain this, the better the results will be,” he explains. “Sustaining higher-intensity exercises over a longer period further lowers the resting heart rate, but it can be challenging for beginners.”
Examples of cardiovascular exercise:
Aerobic-based group exercise classes
In addition, changing the exercises periodically can put further demands on the cardiovascular system, which reduces the resting heart rate even more. However, Joseph says it’s important that the activities are consistent in nature. “For example, if you’re working out three times per week, you must stay at that level week after week,” he says. “You will have limited results if you’re working out three days in the first week, then only once the following week. Consistency is key.”
What’s more, a systematic review of almost 200 interventional studies shows all types of exercise decreased resting heart rates, notes Nikhil Warrier, MD, board-certified cardiac electrophysiologist and medical director of electrophysiology at MemorialCare Heart & Vascular Institute at Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, California. Yoga and endurance training were especially effective in decreased resting heart rates in both sexes.
How Often Should You Work Out to Lower Heart Rate?
The evidence showing how exercise can help lower resting heart rate is pretty compelling, but the million-dollar question remains: How much and how often do you need to do it to see results? While there is no one-size-fits-all answer, the general guidelines for adults is a total of 150 minutes a week of moderate intensity or 75 minutes of high intensity cardiovascular or aerobic exercise, according to the American Heart Association. Based on those guidelines, Dr. Pilchik says 30 to 40 minutes three or four times a week is a reasonable goal.
That said, you need to consider your current fitness level, general goals, and the amount of time you have to devote to exercise, which all play a role in how often you should work out to lower your resting heart rate.
How Long Does It Take For Exercise to Lower Heart Rate?
Experts don’t have an exact answer as to how long it takes to lower your heart rate, but Dr. Pilchik says you should notice a decrease in resting heart rate within a few weeks of starting regular cardiovascular exercise. Of course, it varies from person to person as this all depends on your current aerobic levels, exercise experience, and the intensity of your workouts.
Dr. Warrier says small studies looking at duration of activity have found that younger individuals likely require a shorter duration of training to see meaningful changes in resting heart rates. “Duration could be as short as 12 weeks in younger individuals or longer than 30 weeks in older ones,” he says.
Beginners usually see more drastic changes, while seasoned experts or better conditioned individuals will see more incremental and gradual changes. “More frequent and higher-intensity sessions will yield better and quicker results,” Joseph adds.
If possible, consider working with an exercise physiologist or certified trainer with experience in measuring aerobic fitness levels. They can help you establish a baseline and create goals based on those results. It’s much easier to measure progress when the target relates to your metrics.
Exercise has countless benefits, including lowering your resting heart rate. By keeping your resting heart rate in the normal range, or even a bit below, your heart becomes stronger and more efficient at doing its job, which equates to better cardiovascular health. And the best part? As long as you’ve got clearance from your doctor to work out, you can get started right away with aerobic activity by walking, jogging, hiking, cycling, or doing any movement that gets the heart pumping.