How to Measure Heart Rate Recovery After Exercise and Why It’s Important

How to Measure Heart Rate Recovery After Exercise and Why It’s Important

(Last Updated On: April 19, 2019)

istock_000017156571xsmallHow quickly your heart slows down after exercise, a measure of heart rate recovery, says a lot about how healthy your heart is. Exercise puts stress on your body, and your heart responds by beating faster. This speeds delivery of oxygen and nutrients to hard-working muscles. When you stop exercising, your heart rate gradually returns to its resting rate during recovery. How quickly this happens says a lot about your fitness level – and your overall risk of mortality.

Heart Rate Recovery: A Way to Measure Cardiovascular Fitness

Based on research carried out at the Cleveland Clinic, heart rate recovery after exercise is one of the best indicators of cardiovascular fitness, and it also says something about your risk of dying from a heart-related cause. In fact, this value is directly correlated with mortality.

Why is heart rate recovery such a good predictor of heart health and overall mortality? During exercise and recovery from exercise, heart rate is controlled by input from the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems. During a workout, the sympathetic nervous system predominates. Input from the sympathetic nervous system speeds up the heart rate, which is an appropriate response during exercise. When you stop working out, the parasympathetic nervous system takes over. Input from this system slows down your heart rate as you recover.

If input from these two opposing branches of the nervous system isn’t synchronized properly, it increases the risk of abnormal heart rhythms and sudden death. One way to screen for this is to measure heart rate recovery, or how quickly your heart rate drops after exercise.

How to Measure Heart Rate Recovery

You can get an idea of your own rate of heart rate recovery. To do this, hop on a treadmill and run until you’re breathing hard. Keep working out at this intensity for a full minute. Record your heart rate as you step off of the treadmill. Let yourself to cool down for exactly 60 seconds, and record your heart rate again. Subtract the two heart rates to get a value for heart rate recovery.

If the difference between the two values is 12 or less, you’re at higher than average cardiovascular risk since your heart rate recovery is slow. On the other hand, if the difference is 25 or greater, your heart recovers quickly after exercise and you’re in good cardiovascular shape and have a low risk for death from heart-related causes.

The faster your heart rate returns to its resting rate after exercise, the better your level of cardiovascular fitness. If you’re a beginner, you can follow this value to see if your cardiovascular fitness level is improving over time. If you measure your heart rate recovery and find that it’s 12 or less, talk to your doctor about cardiac stress testing to look for hidden heart disease, just to be on the safe side.

Heart rate recovery is only one factor in determining fitness, but it’s also a marker for a greater risk of cardiovascular mortality, so it’s a value you should know and follow. Fortunately, it’s easy to get an idea of your own rate of heart rate recovery by measuring it yourself when you’re exercising at the gym or at home.



New England Journal of Medicine 1999(October 28);341(18):1351-7.
Circulation. 2004; 110: 2778-2780. “Recovery Heart Rate”
On Fitness magazine. September/October 2011, pages 74-75.


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