heart rate

Do you exercise a lot and have a fast resting heart rate, while family members or friends who never work out have a low heart rate?

Though a normal resting pulse is 60 to 100 beats per minute, there have been studies (Copenhale Male Study and Ronald O. Perelman Heart Institute at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center) showing a correlation between the upper levels of normal with an increased risk of all-cause mortality.

• Beta blocker drugs slow resting heart rate
• Caffeine can elevate it.
• But what if that individual who never exercises but has the resting slow pulse doesn’t take any drugs, and the gym rat mountain hiker with the much faster pulse hardly consumes caffeine?

“While most people associate a heart rate with how in shape or out of shape a person may be, heart rate variability can also be influenced by genetics,” says Walter Gaman, MD, FABFM, board certified in family medicine and the author of several award-winning books including “Age to Perfection: How to Thrive to 100, Happy, Healthy, and Wise.”

Research shows that there are 60 different genetic variants that can impact heart rate. This is why some people who exercise regularly and have a decent BMI can still have a relatively high heart rate,” continues Dr. Gaman.

“An autonomic nervous system dysfunction can also be a cause of high or low heart rate. This can be tested at a physician’s office who does autonomic nervous system testing (ANS).

“Most healthcare providers will also perform a thyroid blood test, especially if the heart rate is abnormally high, to check for hyperthyroidism.”

It may be easier to explain why the fitness enthusiast has a higher heart rate at rest than why the couch potato has the enviably lower resting heart rate.

And that reason is anxiety. The workout buff who has no problem running up a flight of stairs holding a vacuum cleaner in one hand may also be suffering from a chronic state of anxiety that runs in the background – kind of like malware that runs in the background of a computer.

The anxiety changes the hormonal environment of the body, resulting in a sitting pulse in the high 80s or low 90s.

But every so often, the anxiety is out of the system, and the RHR may be in the low 70s and even high 60s.

Another explanation is that maybe the exercise enthusiast isn’t as fit as they think they are. For example, perhaps they can kill it with a heavy barbell, but this doesn’t mean they have a high level of cardiovascular stamina.

If your resting heart rate is usually at the upper end of normal, despite “all the working out” you do, you’ll want to re-evaluate the degree to which you do aerobic exercise. Perhaps you’re inconsistent?

And if you NEVER exercise but have a low resting heart rate, don’t get smug and assume that this is protective against cardiovascular heart disease. Every body needs a good workout at least several times a week.

walter gaman, md

Dr. Gaman is a partner at Executive Medicine of Texas and is with the Staying Young Radio Show 2.0 podcast.