How physically fit you are matters! In fact, studies show that how aerobically fit you are is a marker of overall health and the risk of cardiovascular mortality. For example, a study that followed healthy, middle-aged males for 45 years found that low aerobic fitness was associated with higher mortality even after controlling for factors such as lifestyle habits, blood pressure, and lipid levels.
But how do you know how fit you are? You could go to a health center and walk briskly on a treadmill. As you do, technicians would monitor your oxygen consumption as they gradually increase the exercise intensity. Using this data, the technicians would calculate your aerobic capacity or V02 max. If you don’t have the time or inclination to do that, you can do a simple test at home called the heart rate recovery test.
What is the Heart Rate Recovery Test?
Studies show that the results of a heart rate recovery test give you some indication of how healthy your heart is. Studies reveal that heart rate recovery is also a predictor of cardiac events. This simple test looks at how quickly your heart rate slows down after a bout of exercise.
How does it work? Your heart rate is controlled by the two components of your nervous system: the sympathetic and parasympathetic. The sympathetic portion speeds your heart up when you exercise or are under stress and the parasympathetic slows it down. The ability to quickly switch between the sympathetic and parasympathetic response is a marker of a healthy heart.
When you run in place or cycle vigorously, for example, your heart rate speeds up due to the activity of your sympathetic nervous system. When you stop, the parasympathetic system takes over and slows your heart down. If your nervous system is on the ball, it behaves like a healthy heart and your heart rate drops fast. The ability to do this shows your heart can quickly recover from the stress of exercise.
How to Check Heart Rate Recovery
Are you ready to check your own recovery heart rate? Make sure you’re in a room with a temperature between 68 degrees F. and 77 degrees F. Choose a dynamic exercise that gets your heart rate up. Jumping rope, cycling, jogging in place, jumping jacks, or brisk walking are some options. Then you will do your chosen activity as you monitor your heart rate. The goal is to get your heart rate up to around 70% of target heart rate.
How do you know what your target heart rate should be? You can estimate it by subtracting your age from 220. This gives your maximal heart rate. Then, use your maximal heart rate to estimate your target heart rate. To do this, multiply your maximal heart rate by 70 %. Here’s an example:
For a 40-year-old
220 – 40 = 180 beats per minute. This is maximal heart rate.
180 x 70% = 126 beats per minute. This is target heart rate.
To check your heart rate during exercise if you don’t have a monitor, place two fingers lightly over the radial artery on the medial side of your wrist. (toward your thumb). Count the number of beats in 15 seconds and multiply by 4. Don’t stop exercising when checking your heart rate because it will make the reading less accurate.
Now, start your chosen exercise. Once you reach your target heart rate, immediately record the value. Then, sit quietly and wait two minutes. Once you reach the two-minute mark, check your heart rate again and record the value. Now, subtract the first value from the second and write it down. Here’s what the numbers mean:
If the calculated value is:
- 25+ Very low risk of cardiac death
- 12 -25 Your risk of cardiac death is below average
- 13 -15 Moderate risk of cardiac death
- <12 Higher than average risk of cardiac death
What Can Impact Heart Rate Recovery?
What if you find your heart rate recovery isn’t in a healthy zone? There are factors, other than the health of your heart that can affect it. If you didn’t sleep well the night before and are fatigued, heart rate recovery may be slower than normal. It can also be impacted by hydration and caffeine consumption. If you drank a few cups of coffee and you’re not a regular coffee drinker or you’re dehydrated, your heart rate recovery may be falsely slow. So, check your recovery heart rate several days in a row to establish an average value. Also, recheck it every few weeks. If your heart rate recovery is consistently slow, 12 beats per minute or less, talk to your physician.
Can Aerobic Exercise Improve Heart Rate Recovery?
Aerobic exercise enhances the activity of the parasympathetic nervous system, the portion that slows your heart rate down after exercise. A study published in the Egyptian Heart Journal found that three exercise sessions over 3 months improved heart rate recovery in heart patients. The participants walked on a treadmill for 30 minutes, reaching a target heart rate of 40 to 60% of their maximum heart rate. In addition, the subjects had a lower resting heart rate by the end of the 3-month study. That’s important since research shows a faster resting heart rate is linked with higher mortality.
Also, coaches sometimes use heart rate recovery to monitor whether athletes are getting sufficient recovery between workouts. Slowing of heart rate recovery can be an early sign that an athlete is overtraining. Once you’ve established a baseline, you can use your recovery heart rate to monitor your own training and ensure you aren’t pushing too hard and not giving your body sufficient time to recover.
The Bottom Line
Heart rate recovery is a marker of fitness and also linked with mortality, particularly cardiovascular mortality. It’s a test you can easily do at home. Once you get the results, discuss them with your physician. After you have a baseline, check it regularly to see if it’s improving with training and use it to monitor for overtraining. It’s a useful measure that’s backed by science.
- Mayo Clin Proc. 2009 Sep; 84(9): 776–779.
- European Journal of Preventive Cardiology
- com. “Researchers Find Heart Rate Worth a Thousand Words”
- Egypt Heart J. 2018 Dec; 70(4): 283–285.
- J Hum Kinet. 2014 Jun 28; 41: 43–49. Published online 2014 Jul 8. doi: 10.2478/hukin-2014-0031.
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