The human heart is truly a magnificent creation. This tireless muscle ceaselessly pumps blood throughout the body, keeping us alive. Unfortunately, many of us take our hearts for granted, rarely thinking about how hard it works. However, it logs more than 100,000 beats a day, all while we sip coffee, chase deadlines, and catch some Z’s.
To truly appreciate the heart, we must tune into our heart rate and its subtle counterpart, the pulse. The heart rate and pulse share so many similarities that the terms are often interchangeable. They are both used to measure the speed and rhythm of the heart.
“If they’re so similar, why bother differentiating them?” you could ask. The answer is hidden in the nuances. While heart rate and pulse are intertwined, they are not always in sync. For example, the heart and pulse may not match for patients with atrial fibrillation, leading to a pulse deficit.
Keeping a close watch on both pulse and heart rate can help detect subtle irregularities that may offer clues about cardiovascular health.
The heart’s main gig is to keep blood flowing throughout our body. This blood, packed with oxygen and vital nutrients, reaches all our muscles, organs, and cells. Every heartbeat sends blood through the body’s vast network of blood vessels, responding to our body’s changing needs.
Our body’s demand for these nutrients shifts from one moment to the next. For example, our muscles crave more oxygen when we exercise, so the heart pumps harder to deliver it. On the flip side, our heart rate slows down during rest to match the body’s lower oxygen needs.
Heart rate simply refers to the number of times the heart beats in one minute. How well the heart works (cardiac output) relies on how often it beats in a minute and how much blood it pumps with each beat.
The autonomic nervous system plays a huge role in heart rate regulation. The parasympathetic branch is like getting a hug from a friend. – it releases hormones that slow down the heart rate, making us feel relaxed and at ease.
In contrast, the sympathetic branch acts like a burst of energy, releasing hormones that speed up the heart rate during stress. This part of the nervous system gets our body ready for action. For example, if we need to run from danger, the sympathetic system boosts the heart rate to ensure enough blood for our leg muscles.
The most accurate way to measure heart rate is with an electrocardiogram (EKG) or a monitor like the Zio Patch. Healthcare providers can also measure heart rate by counting heartbeats with a stethoscope.
It’s been said that life is a highway. If that’s true, you want to go quickly enough to get where you’re going but not so fast that you crash. Similarly, your heart must maintain a steady pace to keep your engine chugging. Deviating from this optimal rhythm could signal that your internal motor needs a tune-up.
An adult’s normal resting heart rate is between 60 and 100 beats per minute (BPM). This measurement represents the rate at which the heart contracts when sitting, lying down, or coasting in neutral—expending minimal energy.
The resting heart rate serves as a diagnostic dashboard for our heart’s performance. Research suggests an elevated resting heart rate could act as a warning light, indicating potential heart problems and a possible detour toward an untimely exit.
Much like the variety of cars on the road, there is a lot of variability in resting heart rates. For example, active adults tend to have lower resting heart rates as their hearts are stronger and work more efficiently. So it should come as no surprise that athletes often have resting heart rates cruising between a relaxed 40 and 60 BPM.
An abnormal heart rate is one that falls below 60 BPM or above 100 BPM when at rest.
- Bradycardia: A resting heart that consistently hangs out below 60 beats per minute is called bradycardia. A slowly beating heart may struggle to deliver enough oxygen-rich blood throughout the body. As we age, tissue damage to the heart may slow the rate at which it pumps.
- Tachycardia: Tachycardia is a resting heart that consistently races above 100 beats per minute. A fast heart rate may not provide enough time for the heart to fill with blood adequately.
Bradycardia and tachycardia share similar symptoms, which may include:
- Shortness of breath
- Chest pain
- Heart palpitations
Your heart is like a car’s engine, tirelessly pumping life-sustaining blood through the highways of your arteries. With each heartbeat (systole), the heart flexes its muscles, pushing blood into the arteries and causing their walls to expand momentarily. As the heart relaxes (diastole), the artery walls return to their original state. This pattern creates a wave of pressure you can feel—the pulse.
Like a car’s dashboard, the pulse offers valuable insights into your heart’s performance. You can feel it at various points in your body where the artery sits close to the skin. Palpating the pulse is like checking your car’s speedometer—it’s another way to measure your heart rate.
But the pulse doesn’t stop there; it can also provide intel on your heart’s rhythm. A normal pulse is like a drum, moving with equal intervals between beats. On the other hand, an irregular pulse reveals a heart marching to the beat of a different drummer, possibly due to AFib, PVCs, or other cardiac abnormalities.
The pulse can also be appraised for its strength. Much like the grip of a handshake, a pulse can be weak, normal, or bounding—each offering clues about your heart’s condition.
What is a normal pulse?
In a healthy individual, the pulse should mirror the heart rate. At rest, a normal pulse is between 60-100 beats per minute (BPM).
An abnormal pulse would fall below 60 beats per minute or above 100 beats per minute. However, it’s important to note that a pulse can fall between this normal range and still be abnormal if the rhythm is irregular.
Although heart rate and pulse might seem like two sides of the same coin, they are distinct measurements with their own unique qualities. The heart and pulse are often in harmony for those in good health. But, when the heart and blood vessels are out of sync, it’s a sign that something is out of sorts in the body.
Heart arrhythmias may lead to a mismatch between heart rate and pulse.
When these two partners fall out of step, it may result in a pulse deficit—a common side effect of issues such as atrial fibrillation. A pulse deficit is identified by listening to the heart and palpating the radial pulse at the same time. If the two do not match, a pulse deficit is present.
As you cruise through life, being familiar with measuring and interpreting your resting heart rate is like knowing how to read your car’s dashboard—it’s crucial for staying on track with your health. Should your heart rate take an unexpected detour from the norm, don’t hesitate to schedule a complimentary 20-minute strategy call with one of our NHD team members. They’re here to help you navigate the road to wellness and keep your engine running smoothly.