“The subject of athletics has not been understood until recently; nor has the best method of training been investigated,” Dr. Sargent told a Harvard audience on March 6, 1896. Dr. Sargent seems to be suggesting that everything about athletic training was now settled. 121 years later, however, there is still so much to learn about our amazing bodies, and how to maximize what they can do.
One useful measure is resting heart rate (RHR). A low RHR (along with optimal SpO2) is the hallmark of cardio health. RHR is just what it sounds like, the measure of how many times your heart beats (per minute) when you are at rest. (as opposed to heart rate variability (HRV), which measures the variation between beats.)
You can measure it with wearable tech or kick it old school (2 fingers at the neck) Either way, knowing your baseline RHR will help you monitor progress, and identify problems, before other symptoms emerge.
A normal resting heart rate for adults ranges from 60 to 90. When it comes to RHR, it important to know how to lower resting heart rate. Elite athletes have RHR in the 50s, 40s, even 30s. High RHR is associated with an increase in risk of death. But can you change your RHR? If so, how? And by how much?
How Can You Change Your Resting Heart Rate?
The good news? Yes, you can lower your resting heart rate.
The 3 best ways to reduce your RHR?
(Need help remembering? Picture yourself riding a bike. (exercise) Your stress melts away. (relaxation) You’re so stress-free you fall into a deep slumber. (sleep.)
“It is very possible and even common to lower your resting heart rate through exercise,” says Tyler Spraul, a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist and Head Trainer at Exercise.com. “The type of exercise is not important, as long as you are challenging your cardiovascular system with your workouts.”
The 4 most Important types of exercise for health include strengthening, stretching, balance, and aerobic exercises. And exercise doesn’t just lower your RHR. Harvard Medical School reminds us that exercise will also ward off depression, enhance your sex life, sharpen your wits, and improve your sleep.
“As you train your cardiovascular system,” Spraul explains, “you will increase its efficiency and capacity. What ends up happening is that your heart is able to do more work with less effort (pump more blood throughout your system while requiring less energy and exertion to do so), so your resting heart rate goes down.“
It’s important to find activities you like, and to mix it up, to avoid boredom and make sure you’re working all parts of your body. Interval training (alternating intensive workouts with periods of rest) is an especially effective way to lower your RHR.
Sleep is emerging as a new frontier of health, with implications for cardio health, cognition, mood and even mortality. That’s right, a good night’s sleep over time can forestall death.
Disturbed sleep negatively impacts heart health and can increase RHR. Sleep has been shown to promote cardiac health and mood, which in turn has a protective function across all aspects of your health and performance. Sleep also protects against weight gain, which can increase your RHR.
Whether we are resting, or stoked with adrenaline during a ‘fight or flight response’, our hearts are in play.
Reduce stress, and your RHR will naturally fall. Increase stress? And it will rise, regardless of sleep and exercise. Stress in teens (measured by parental corporal punishment) was found to increase adolescent resting heart rate variability, while positive parenting helped improve RHR and HRV.
Yet reducing stress is easier said than done.
Some stress is beyond our control. But that makes it even more important to control what we can, and incorporate stress reduction as a daily component of our healthy lifestyle.
These interventions are widely successful to reduce stress.
- Breathing exercises
- Exercise (there’s that word again)
- Higher physical fitness was found to have a protective effect against training distress in collegiate soccer players.
- A recent study of yoga and children showed yoga practices of even short duration (3 months) can “reduce anxiety status and decreases resting heart rate” by affecting the autonomic nervous system.
- Nutrition (avoid sugar, caffeine and alcohol)
- Relaxation Apps
How Quickly and by How Much?
A recent poster on Researchgate asked, “Is it possible to decrease the heart rate by 20 bpm in 6 months” The consensus? Yes, through exercise, but you need to be healthy to start, and work super hard.
G. Filligoi of Sapienza University of Rome recommends the relaxation route: “You can decrease heart rate by respiration exercises, yoga, meditation. I would suggest some self-consciousness approach in order to reduce the anxiety, nervous stress, and similars.”
Not everyone agrees it’s possible. “In my opinion,” says Oscar Fabregat-Andrés of MED Hospitales, “it is not possible to modulate baseline heart rate in such magnitude, because although exercise is able to regulate autonomic system, "vagal tone" necessary to reach this rate is not performed in 6 months.”
Does Lowering your RHR Make you Healthy?
If a low RHR is a sign of health, does that mean lowering your RHR automatically makes you healthy? No, but it’s evidence you’re on the right track. Measuring RHR is a safe, non-intrusive way to track the success of your fitness regime, and spot trouble early.
“A low resting heart rate doesn't necessarily lead to better health in and of itself,” says Spraul, “but it can be used more as an indicator of the effectiveness of your training methods.”
This effectiveness can be positive, or not. “If you are doing workouts that challenge your cardiovascular system and your resting heart rate decreases over time,” he says, “that is a good sign that you are doing the right things.” But it’s important to measure it regularly, even, especially, if you are training hard. An unexpectedly elevated RHR can be a sign of overtraining. “Sometimes the resting heart rate can actually increase,” Spraul cautions, “which is a sign that you have over-stressed your body's systems and may need to focus on better recovery or
Back to the Basics
Back in 1896, Dr. Sargent wasn’t so far off the mark. “The modern idea of training,” he told his Harvard audience, “is to seek things “which will contribute to health and strength: diet, sleep, bathing, proper clothing and exercise.” “Exercise with energy,” he concluded, “to stimulate the heart and lungs and increase respiration and circulation.” Some things never change.
Exercise stimulates the heart, in a good way. And RHR is a key measure of how well it works.