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Why Your Resting Heart Rate Should Be Your Best Friend

There is so much your resting heart rate can tell you – it can predict illness, help you manage your stress, and even save your life.

Our bodies are complex systems. It is impossible to know what is going on below the surface, below our level of awareness – but resting heart rate gives us a window, in one measurement, to how we are doing psychologically and physically.

The way we get into this window is through our wearable devices, like our Fitbits. If we are only using our Fitbits, Apple or Garmin watches to measure how high we can get our heart rate during exercise, or how many steps we have taken, then we are missing out on a vital piece of information.

In my recent article for Sixty and Me, 5 Myths People Believe About Heart Attack and Sudden Cardiac Arrest That Could Cost Them Their Life, I talk about how easy it is for us not to recognize our own heart attacks.

Your resting heart rate can help you. Your resting heart rate can tell you when your heart is under stress. Your resting heart rate should become your best friend. Here’s how.

What Is a Normal Resting Heart Rate?

Your resting heart rate is the number of times your heart beats each minute when you are sitting or lying down, and calm, relaxed, and not ill. For most people, it is considered normal to have a resting heart rate between 60 and 100 beats per minute (BPM) while awake. While sleeping, a slower heart rate, between 40 and 60 BPM, is considered normal.

Why Knowing Your Resting Heart Rate Matters

Resting heart rate is the nurse’s key measure of patient stability. Resting heart rate or pulse is aptly named a vital sign. An usually high resting heart rate or an unusually low resting heart rate may signal an increased risk of heart attack.

This is why it is important for you to know your normal resting heart rate. When your resting heart rate is in your low normal range, that means that your heart is pumping blood efficiently to the rest of your body and that your nervous system is in balance.

When your resting heart rate is higher than your normal, this is your warning sign that your heart is working harder than expected at a state of rest. It could mean that your nervous system is out of balance.

Here’s a study to show that: When researchers examined data on 129,135 postmenopausal women, they found that those with the highest resting heart rates – greater than 76 beats per minute – were 26% more likely to have and/or die from a heart attack, compared to those with the lowest resting heart rates – 62 beats per minute or less (Harvard Health, 2020).

A Powerful Way to Balance Your Resting Heart Rate

When I started my green space research journey, the simple fact that just looking at or being in green space for five minutes slowed heart rate down, bringing it back into balance, meant a lot to me as a nurse. I knew that this effect on the heart was something big.

And then, when I found the evidence-based reasons for why green space was helping my systemic lupus so much, I knew I was on to something new and important, not just for me but for others as well. That is why I wrote my first book, Take Back Your Outside Mindset: Live Longer, Stress Less, and Control Your Chronic Illness.

How Do You Get Your Resting Heart Rate?

Your resting heart rate is literally at your fingertips. To measure your own resting heart rate, you can:

Take Your Heart Rate the Old-Fashioned Way

Place two fingers lightly below your thumb on your wrist until you feel a pulse. Count the number of pulsations for 30 seconds, then multiply that number by two.

Purchase a Finger Clip

Called a pulse oximeter, this devices measures your heart rate and the amount of oxygen in your blood stream. Pulse oximeters are what we nurses use in hospital units to take patients’ pulse or resting heart rate.

Check Your Wearable Fitness Watch

This could be a device such as a Fitbit or Apple Watch. Most models measure and collect heart rate information for you. You don’t have to do anything but check it.

Your Resting Heart Rate: Your Early Warning System

Not only can your resting heart rate be your best friend, it can be your early warning system. It can tell you when you are about to get sick with an infection (like Covid), you’ve had poor sleep, excessive alcohol consumption, or strain from travel.

In short, your resting heart rate can tell you when your heart is over working. In my specific case, my resting heart rate tells me when I am on the brink of a lupus flare. My resting heart rate gives me advance warning that I need to rest and recover.

How Resting Heart Rate Is Tied to Your Environment

For my recent book, I used heart rate (resting heart rate and heart rate variability) to help me solve the mystery of what happened to my life long friend, Leslie, who died at the age of 63 of a heart attack followed by a sudden cardiac arrest on day three of her road trip.

In my research investigation I learned that resting heart rate (and heart rate variability) are single reliable (research trusted) measures of our personal mental and physical stress.

In particular, I learned that both heart rate measures – are deeply impacted by the air we breathe, the sounds we hear, bright lights at night, lack of sleep, lack of direct sunlight, our emotions, and sitting for hours.

In short, your resting heart rate is inextricably linked to the environments that you move about in daily. For example, new research out of France shows that being in public places doubles our resting heart rate compared to when we are at home.

More new research on how to use your own resting heart rate and heart rate variability in environments that either threaten our hearts or protect our hearts can be found in my book, Optimize Your Heart Rate: Balance Your Mind and Body with Green Space.

Practical Tips for Integrating Green Space into Your Busy Life

Once you have made your own resting heart rate your friend, why not give your heart the support and protection of the green spaces near you?

One thing that is clear, is that just five minutes of looking into green space restores your resting heart rate balance. This happens automatically within the complex nervous systems of your body. All you have to do is get there and do nothing.

For more on how getting to green space reduces “all bad things by 20 percent” listen to my discussion with Professor Andy Jones on my podcast, Your Outside Mindset on all podcast platforms. Professor Jones says, “If we had a pill for all the positive effects of green space, we’d take it.”

Even if you think, you don’t have the time, try to give yourself five minutes to look at a picture of nature or get out into a green place. Again, being in green space and doing nothing recalibrates and balances your nervous system and your resting heart rate.

The return on your investment of five minutes is manifold – there are many positive and overlapping effects, including emotional regulation (calm), mood lift, increase in self-esteem, increased ability to concentrate, problem solve, and learn new things.

And once you are looking into green space or you are surrounded by it, please consider placing your hand on your heart to thank it for all it does for you. This simple thing adds self-compassion to your green space practice. Congratulations for supporting your resting heart rate friend.

Do you check your resting heart rate? Have you checked your resting heart rate as you move through different environments? Do you have a sense of what environments make your heart especially vulnerable? Do you think your emotions affect your resting heart rate? How important is for you to know your own resting heart rate? Can you plan 5 minutes of green space intervals throughout your day?

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The Author

Verla Fortier, a retired professor of nursing, manages her lupus erythematosus by living and playing outside in Pine Falls, Manitoba, Canada, on the edge of the boreal forest. For free evidence-based green space health tips visit her website https://treesmendus.com.

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