Overview

Heart rate is a measurement of how many times your heart beats in one minute.

Resting heart rate is how many heart beats you have per minute when you aren’t exercising or otherwise under stress. Resting heart rate can be an important measure of the health of your heart muscle.

It’s helpful to be able to check your own heart rate for your general health, when exercising, or if you experience symptoms such as dizziness.

You may also need to check your child’s pulse or check someone’s pulse in an emergency situation after you’ve called 911 in order to determine if CPR is needed.

Your age and fitness level have a big impact on your resting heart rate. All of the following can also affect your heart rate:

  • temperature
  • body position, such as lying, sitting, or standing
  • emotional state
  • caffeine intake
  • certain medications
  • underlying heart or thyroid conditions

There are a number of ways to check your pulse. Here are some of the most common methods:

Method 1: Radial pulse

To check your pulse using this method, you’ll be finding the radial artery.

  1. Place your pointer and middle fingers on the inside of your opposite wrist just below the thumb.
  2. Don’t use your thumb to check your pulse, as the artery in your thumb can make it harder to count accurately.
  3. Once you can feel your pulse, count how many beats you feel in 15 seconds.
  4. Multiply this number by 4 to get your heart rate. For instance, 20 beats in 15 seconds equals a heart rate of 80 beats per minute (bpm).

Method 2: Carotid pulse

To check your pulse using this method, you’ll be finding the carotid artery.

  1. Place your pointer and middle fingers on the side of your windpipe just below the jawbone. You may need to shift your fingers until you can easily feel your heart beating.
  2. Count the pulses you feel for 15 seconds.
  3. Multiply this number by 4 to obtain your heart rate.

Method 3: Pedal pulse

You can also find your pulse on the top of your foot. This is called the pedal pulse.

  1. Place your index and middle fingers above the highest point of the bone that runs along the top of your foot. You may have to move your fingers along the bone or slightly to either side to feel the pulse.
  2. Once you have found your pulse, count the beats for 15 seconds.
  3. Multiply by 4 to obtain your heart rate.

Method 4: Brachial pulse

Another location for checking your pulse is the brachial artery. This method is used most commonly in young children.

  1. Turn your arm so it’s slightly bent and your inner arm is facing up toward the ceiling.
  2. Place your index and middle fingers along the side of your arm between the crook of your elbow on the top and the pointy part of your elbow bone on the bottom. Then move your fingers an inch up your arm. You may have to press quite firmly to feel your pulse.
  3. Once you can feel the pulse, count how many beats occur in 15 seconds.
  4. Multiply this number by 4 to obtain your heart rate.

Method 5: Checking your heart rate with an assistive device

There are a number of devices that can tell you your heart rate, such as:

  1. at-home blood pressure machines
  2. digital fitness trackers
  3. smartphone apps
  4. exercise machines
  5. The most accurate device for checking your heart rate is a wireless monitor that’s strapped around your chest. It reads out to a fitness tracker worn on your wrist.

Digital fitness trackers worn on the wrist, at-home blood pressure machines, and smartphone apps are less accurate than checking your heart rate manually. However, these devices are fairly accurate and very useful when exercising.

Exercise machines may have metal hand grips to read your heart rate, but these are often very inaccurate. To check your heart rate while exercising, it’s most effective to check manually or to use a digital fitness tracker.

What should your heart rate be?

Heart rate norms are based primarily on age rather than gender, although men tend to have slightly lower heart rates than women.

The ideal resting heart rate for adults is 60 to 100 bpm. Very fit individuals such as athletes may have resting heart rates below 60 bpm.

Target heart rates can be used to maximize the efficiency of your workouts, as well as to keep you safe. Typically, exercising at 60 to 85 percent of your maximum heart rate is most beneficial.

Exercising at the lower end of this percentage or doing interval training (where your heart rate goes up and down) is ideal for fat burning. Exercising at the higher end is ideal for building cardiovascular strength.

To calculate your estimated maximum heart rate, you can use the equation of subtracting your age from 220. For example, if you’re 45, then your approximate maximum heart rate is 175 bpm (220 – 45 = 175).

You can then use your maximum heart rate to determine what your target heart rate is while exercising.

The chart below shows estimated maximum and target heart rates for various age groups:

Age Estimated maximum heart rate Target heart rate (60-85% of max
20 200 120-170
25 195 117-166
30 190 114-162
35 185 111-157
40 180 108-153
45 175 105-149
50 170 102-145
55 165 99-140
60 160 96-136
65 155 93-132
70 150 90-123

The most accurate way to determine your true maximum heart rate and target heart rates is to participate in a graded exercise test performed by a doctor.

It’s always best to talk with a doctor before beginning a new exercise program, especially if you’ve been sedentary or have a history of heart or lung issues.

When to see a doctor

A consistently low heart rate is called bradycardia. In healthy young adults or trained athletes, a low heart rate with no other symptoms is usually the sign of a very healthy heart muscle.

However, a low heart rate can be a sign of a serious underlying problem. If your heart rate is lower than 60 bpm and you’re experiencing chest pain, call 911. If you’re experiencing dizziness, weakness, fainting, or other concerning symptoms, call a doctor.

A consistently high heart rate (over 100 bpm when resting) is known as tachycardia. It’s normal to have an elevated heart rate when you’re exercising, stressed, anxious, sick, or have consumed caffeine.

It’s not normal to have a heart rate over 100 bpm when you’re resting, especially if you’re also experiencing:

  • dizziness
  • weakness
  • headache
  • palpitations
  • sudden anxiety
  • chest pain

If you’re having these symptoms, call a doctor.

The takeaway

There are simple methods for checking your heart rate that you can perform at home. It may be useful to know your resting heart rate as an indicator of your heart health.

You can also maximize your workout routine by knowing your target heart rates and checking your heart rate when exercising.

There are times when a high or low heart rate accompanied by other symptoms is a sign of a serious underlying issue. Call your doctor immediately if you experience this.