What does it mean if a physically fit person has a fast resting heart rate?

Do you exercise a lot, consider yourself physically fit, but have a fast resting heart rate and wonder if this will negatively affect your risk for all-cause mortality or heart problems?

A resting heart rate of between 60 and 100 is normal. However, the question is this:

Is mortality affected if someone’s pulse is usually around 85 versus 65, even if that person exercises?

Does it make a difference if that individual’s resting pulse is towards the higher end of normal as opposed to the lower end of normal?

Researchers wanted to find out if resting heart rate influenced a person’s risk of mortality, regardless of fitness level.

The Study

For the study, the health of almost 3,000 Caucasian men was tracked for 16 years.

All sorts of vitals were measured, including aerobic fitness (cycling test), height, weight, blood fats, blood sugars and blood pressure. And of course, resting heart rate.

As expected, men who had a high resting heart rate also tended to have the lowest levels of physical fitness, plus hypertension and more blood fats.

Physically fit men tended to have lower resting pulses.

But the results can’t be denied:

The faster the resting heart rate, the greater was the risk of mortality. And this result was independent of fitness level.

What about factors that could influence results? These were adjusted for.

– A resting heart rate of 51-80 bpm was tied to a 40-50 percent increased death risk.

– Between 81 and 90 bpm doubled the mortality risk, when compared to men with the lowest rate.

– Above 90 bpm meant a tripled risk.

Every 10-22 additional bpm increased mortality by 16 percent, overall.

The paper points out that regardless of a study participant’s level of fitness, those with a high resting heart rate fared much worse than those with a lower RHR.

In other words, a high RHR is an independent risk factor for a shortened lifespan.

What should you do?

First off, re-evaluate your exercise habits. It’s a well-known fact that a regular exercise program lowers resting heart rate.

It’s also a well-known fact that many people unknowingly inflate their perception of just how much they exercise.

“I get plenty of exercise” is an assertion spoken by many men and women who — in actuality — don’t even have a regular, consistent workout regimen.

Many belong to the “any movement counts towards exercise” camp.

“Any movement,” to these men and women, may include standing in one spot for 10 minutes tossing a rubber toy for their dog to fetch, or doing basic housework.

This just isn’t enough to effectively train the heart to be more efficient.

A second point to consider, regarding this study, was that the population involved was very limited: white middle aged men.

“So you can’t assume the same would be true for, say, young women from a different ethnic group,” says Dr. David Beatty, MD, a retired general practitioner with 30+ years of experience and an instructor of general medicine for 20 years.

Other than fitness, the following factors can affect RHR, says Dr. Beatty:

• Anemia

• Valvular heart disease

• Stress / anxiety / emotional factors

• Hormone factors such as a raised thyroid hormone

• Pregnancy (not relevant to this study)

“It’s conceivable that a few of the study group had one of these problems which in turn might have reduced their life expectancy,” says Dr. Beatty.

“For instance, anemia might be due to bowel cancer which causes premature death.

“Someone with aortic or mitral valve regurgitation might pass their ECG test, done at the start of the trial, but it would put extra strain on the heart as the years go by.

“The result of the trial was very clear-cut, so my overall impression is that there is a correlation between higher heart rate and earlier mortality,” in white, middle aged men.

How to Lower RHR with Exercise

To lower resting pulse, you may want to consider high intensity interval training.

This can be done only twice a week, on any cardio equipment or outdoors.

Here is more about high intensity interval training.

Dr. Beatty has worked in primary medicine, surgery, accident and emergency, OBGYN, pediatrics and chronic disease management. He is the Doctor of Medicine for Strong Home Gym.
Lorra Garrick is a former personal trainer certified by the American Council on Exercise. At Bally Total Fitness she trained clients of all ages for fat loss, muscle building, fitness and improved health. 
Top image: Shutterstock/VGstockstudio
Source: heart.bmj.com/content/early/2013/03/21/heartjnl-2012-303375.short?g=w_heart_ahead_tab