Fitness Tips

Elite Athletes Have Super-Low Resting Heart Rates, but That Doesn’t Mean You Need to Shoot for 40 BPM

Kells McPhillips

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We’d heard that a low resting heart rate is one of the health markers shared by many of the world’s most elite athletes; but, when FitBit released data earlier this week suggesting that the folks of Bend, Oregon, have the lowest BPMs in the United States, our office started to wonder: What exactly does the digit mean for the the rest of us?

Michael Barber, MD, PhD, a cardiologist at Colorado’s Strata Integrative Wellness Spa, says that while a normal resting heart rate falls between 60 and 100 beats per minute, a resting heart rate below 60 beats per minute (bradycardia) is perfectly healthy for some individuals, if not necessarily an indicator of exceptional health. “The mere presence of a low resting heart rate in the absence of any other additional information really says very little about a person or person’s overall state of health,” says the doctor. Your heart health and the number of times it beats per minute really depend on a cocktail of factors, including age (your rate will naturally decrease as you grow older), certain medications, thyroid health, hormonal abnormalities, and too many others to name, he says.

“In general, unless a person is symptomatic (weakness, fatigue, low energy level, lightheadedness, dizziness, near passing out or passing out, decreased physical performance, etc.), heart rates even lower than 40 BPM may be normal for that individual,” says Dr. Barber. Of course, you’d need to consult with a specialist to know exactly what your specific heart rate means for your health.

It’s unclear why the fastest, strongest, and most dextrous among us develop this often innocuous heart-abnormality. “Highly conditioned individuals or high-level athletes often have resting heart rates in the 40s and some may have heart rates less than 30 BPM, but otherwise function normally,” Dr Barber says. The American Heart Association suggests that since the heart is a muscle and exercise strengthens the muscles, the heart simply doesn’t need to work as hard with each beat after years of conditioning.

The bottom line: While having a low heart rate is an important piece of the puzzle that makes up your overall well-being, it not the true north of your gym gains. Instead, Berkeley Wellness recommends keeping an eye on your “recovery heart rate,” or how quickly your heart rate drops after bouts of strenuous activity. If your rate can drop 20 beats in a minute, that’s good sign that all your HIIT treadmill series have been paying off.

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