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Measuring Heart Rate

What is Your Heart Rate?

This is the rate at which a persons heart is beating. This is commonly measured at various stages of activity and inactivity. The heart rate when a person is resting is commonly around 72 beats per minute (bpm). If the person is very fit, it may be lower. If they are very unfit, it may be higher. The heart rate will increase when they exercise, in order to deliver more oxygen to the blood and in turn to the muscles.  If a person is aiming to increase their cardio-vascular fitness, measuring their heart rate before starting an exercise program and at regular intervals during the program is beneficial.



Heart rate can vary according to:

  • Stress - If stressed, it will be higher, even if the person is very still.
  • Posture/Position - When lying down the heart rate is lower compared to standing or exercising.
  • Level of fitness - Fitter people have smaller increases in heart rate in response to increased physical activity. The resting heart rate is usually lower than average in a fit person (but this is not always the case).
  • Activity - with increased activity the heart rate increases.
  • Illness and age are also factors influencing heart rate.




While the average heart rate is about 72 bpm for sedentary males and 80 bpm for sedentary females these rates are often significantly different for trained athletes.


Heart Rates:

  • Can provide a "general" indication of a persons cardiovascular fitness.
  • For an average person, this is 72 to 75 beats per minute.
  • For a fit person it may be as low as 50 to 65.
  • Marathon runners have been known to have a resting heart rate as low as 35 - 40 beats per minute.
  • After exercise the heart rate of a fit person will return to normal faster than in an unfit person. It is possible to get a estimation of fitness by measuring the heart rate at a standard time (eg. 1, 2 or 5 mins) after exercise.


Measurement Methods


Radial - Taking your Pulse on the Wrist

Hold the palm of your right hand facing upwards; place the tips of the middle three fingers from the left hand on the wrist joint, behind the base of the right thumb and count the number of beats for six seconds. Multiply this number by ten to give the beats per minute.


Carotid - Taking your pulse on the Throat

Place two fingers (first and second) lightly on the side of the throat just below the angle of the jaw. You should be able to feel a pulse from the jugular vein. Count the number of beats for six seconds. Multiply this number by ten to give the beats per minute.


Heart Rate Monitors

These are very commonly used to give a more accurate measure of heart rate than manual "finger" methods. In most physical training situations they are the preferred method. They have numerous advantages, including:

§         Accuracy - they are far more accurate than finger tests. Some have been tested as being very accurate, for example, monitors from Polar (a leading brand) have been independently tested as being within one beat per minute of electrocardiogram readings at intensities up to 180 bpm.

§         They can give continuous, instantaneous readings that can be viewed readily via digital display. This means that the exerciser doesn't have to stop or interrupt their exercise session or evaluation session to do a manual test. Exercise intensity can be readily adjusted upwards or downwards so that the heart rate is in the desired training range. 

§         They can be small and lightweight, creating little if any hindrance to carrying out physical activity.

§         Some can be programmed to sound an alarm or warning when set heart rate ranges are breached, or if set maximum rates are reached.

§         They can be used for practically any type of physical activity, even water activities such as swimming, canoeing or rowing when waterproofed models are used.

§         Readings are commonly taken using a chest strap, and a signal transmitted to a receiver in a watch type display, or a hand held receiver (e.g. held by a coach, training partner, or fitness evaluator).


When the heart rate is determined a simple formula can be used to work out whether the individual is training at the right intensity:

220 - Age = Maximum Heart Rate

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