Understanding your pulse (heart rate)
Your pulse, or heart rate, can tell you a lot about your heart. Learn about normal and abnormal heart rates and find out how to check your own pulse.
Learn how to check your pulse
What is your pulse?
When your heart beats it pushes blood around your body. This heartbeat can be felt as your 'pulse' on your wrist or neck
Your pulse is measured by counting the number of times your heart beats in one minute. For example, if your heart contracts 72 times in one minute, your pulse would be 72 beats per minute (BPM). This is also called your heart rate.
A normal pulse beats in a steady, regular rhythm. However, in some people this rhythm is uneven, or 'jumps about'. This is known as an irregular pulse.
How do you find your pulse?
The easiest place to find your pulse is in your wrist.
- Turn your hand so that your palm is facing upwards.
- Now place the three middle fingers from your other hand on your wrist in the outside groove below the base of your thumb.
- Press lightly to feel the pulse under your fingers. If you can't feel anything press slightly harder.
How do you check your pulse (heart rate)?
You can measure your heart rate manually by checking your pulse. Follow these three steps.
- Find your pulse in your wrist (as explained above).
- Count each beat for a total time of 30 seconds.
- Double the number of beats you counted. This is your heart rate or pulse, measured in beats per minute.
Also make a note of whether your heart beats at an even or uneven rhythm. A normal heart beats in a steady rhythm like a clock, tick tock tick tock.
Some people like to use a heart rate monitor to measure their heart rate. These monitors are often included in fitness trackers, which are now widely available in sports stores and other retail outlets. However, their accuracy depends on the quality of the device.
If you've been active, or recently had a stimulant like nicotine or caffeine, you'll need to wait at least five minutes before taking your pulse.
What is a normal heart rate?
A normal heart rate, when you're not being active, is generally between 60 – 100 beats per minute. This is called your resting heart rate.
Athletes or people who are very fit may have resting heart beats of less than 60 bpm.
When you're active, your heart beats faster to get more oxygen to your working muscles. The harder your body is working, the faster your heart will beat. For example, your heart rate when you're sprinting will be much faster than your heart rate when you're walking. If you're exercising hard, it's normal for your heart rate to get up to 160 beats per minute or more.
There are other things that can make your heart beat faster, like caffeine, nicotine, recreational drugs and some kinds of medications. Your heart will also beat faster when you feel strong emotions, like anxiety, fear or excitement.
What is an irregular pulse?
An irregular pulse is when the heart doesn't beat in a regular, steady rhythm. This is also called an irregular heart rate or an arrhythmia.
If your heart rate is irregular, you may notice that your pulse:
- seems irregular or is 'jumping around
- is racing, even when you're at rest
- seems unusually slow some or most of the time
- seems to pause, add, or miss a beat.
Why is it important to get it checked?
Often an irregular pulse is harmless. However, it's important to get it checked by a health professional, because sometimes it's a sign of a heart condition.
The most common kind of heart rhythm condition is atrial fibrillation (AF), which can put you at greater risk of having a stroke. Fortunately, if you have AF, there's medication you can take to help significantly reduce this stroke risk.
Your doctor can do a simple test called an ECG (electrocardiogram) to further check your irregular pulse.
What are heart palpitations?
A heart palpitation is when you suddenly become aware of your heart beating, usually in an irregular way. Sometimes you can feel it in your ears, neck or chest when you’re lying down. Your heart beat may feel:
- too fast or slow
- like it’s fluttering
- like it’s thudding, or pounding.
It is not unusual to feel heart palpitations occasionally and mostly they are harmless. However if you’re experiencing them on a regular basis, see your doctor.
Exercise and heart rate
Like any other muscle, your heart needs exercise to keep it fit and healthy. Regular exercise can help reduce your risk of heart disease and other health conditions, such as diabetes.
To keep your heart healthy, you should aim to do 150 minutes of low to moderate intensity exercise a week. If you have a heart condition, talk to your doctor about what exercise and target heart rates are safe for you.
One way to measure the intensity of your exercise is by using your heart rate. To exercise at a low to moderate intensity your heart rate should be at 50 to 70% of your approximate maximum heart rate.
The easiest way to get an approximate maximum heart rate (MHR) is to calculate 220 – your age. You then need to calculate 50 to 70% of your MHR.
For example, if you're 40-years-old:
- your approximate maximum heart rate is: 220 – 40 = 180 beats per minute
- 50% of your MHR is 180 X 0.5 = 90 bpm
- 70% of your MHF is 180 X 0.7 = 126 bpm.
Alternatively, you can use our heart rate chart below to get a rough idea.
Remember if you're on medications to slow your heart rate down, you may not be able to meet these upper heart rates and the aim should be to exercise at a rate that makes you lightly puff.
Heart rate zones chart
Estimated heart rates for exercising.
|Age||Approximate Maximum Heart Rate (MHR)||Target heart rate for low to moderate intensity exercise|
(50-70% of maximum for MHR)
|20||200 bpm||100 - 140 bpm|
|30||190 bpm||95 - 133 bpm|
|40||180 bpm||90 - 126 bpm|
|50||170 bpm||85 - 119 bpm|
|60||160 bpm||80 - 112 bpm|
|70||150 bpm||75 - 105 bpm|
|80||140 bpm||70 - 98 bpm|
|90||130 bpm||65 - 91 bpm|