What your heart rate can tell you about your health

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Your heart rate is relatively simple to measure, but most people don't know how to interpret this health statistic once they've determined it. Learning how to find and interpret your heart rate can reveal some fascinating clues about what's going on inside your body. Measuring your heart rate takes only a minute: You simply find your pulse (most easily located on your neck or the inside of your wrist) and set a timer for 60 seconds. Count the number of times you feel a beat during that minute. That number is your heart rate, which is measured in beats per minute (BPM).

Your heart rate is always in flux. You've probably felt it increase when you've walked up a flight of stairs or in a stressful moment. It can change for any number of reasons - but there are two useful markers for measurement. Your resting heart rate is your heart rate when you are completely at rest, such as when you are sleeping or lying down (according to the American Heart Association, it should be somewhere between 60 and 100 beats per minute). Your maximal heart rate is your heart rate when you are at your highest possible level of physical effort during exercise. Both of these markers can reveal fascinating clues about your heart.

Of course, you should not use this information to self-diagnose or make any radical lifestyle changes without first talking to a medical professional. While you can measure your heart rate on your own, you aren't your doctor. And you should always consult your doctor before prescribing yourself any medical advice. That being said, there are some interesting facts your heart rate can tell you about your health.

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If you're stressed

Stress affects your body in a few ways, some of which are more dangerous than others. One of the more immediate effects of stress is an elevated heart rate. The American Heart Association explains that stress causes a release of adrenaline, which in turn elevates your heart rate as part of the "fight or flight" response. You've probably felt this effect when it's immediate, during a short-term stressor such as a sudden fall or when you're surprised. But an elevated heart rate can occur as a result of chronic stress as well, though it may not be as noticeable.

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If you're developing a fever

A higher heart rate could actually be an early sign that you're getting sick. When your body temperature elevates, so does your heart rate. A study in the Emergency Medicine Journal showed that every degree Celsius increase in body temperature results in an average of 10 additional beats per minute. Did you get your flu shot this year?

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If you overdid it on caffeine

It's not super clear whether or not you can really ever drink too much coffee - its antioxidants have some great health benefits. However, a large amount of caffeine can seriously ramp up your heart rate. A study in the Journal of Caffeine Research determined that heart rate increased in both forcefulness and speed in study participants who ingested caffeine. However, a study in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine showed that though heart rate can increase with caffeine consumption, some individuals have developed a tolerance to the chemical's effects.

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Whether you're getting enough sleep

Sleep deprivation has both long- and short-term effects, one of which could be an impact on your heart rate. A study presented at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA) connected just one night of poor sleep with an elevated heart rate.

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How physically fit you are

You probably can feel your heart racing during a workout, but did you know your workouts also affect your heart rate when you're at rest? Your resting heart rate changes depending on your level of physical fitness. When you work out regularly, your heart becomes more efficient at pumping blood. When it's able to do so more efficiently, your resting heart rate decreases. According to the Mayo Clinic, someone who is just getting started at the gym might have a normal resting heart rate, but an athlete or otherwise physically well-trained individual will have a resting heart rate closer to 40 BPM.

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When you need a rest

Better physical fitness translates to a lower resting heart rate, but that doesn't mean more exercise is always better. In fact, once you start overtraining by exercising too much, your resting heart rate will start to increase. A study in the Journal of Sports Sciences monitored the exercise intensity and heart rates of trained cyclists. When athletes overtrained, their resting heart rates increased. A review in the journal Sports Health hypothesized that these reactions may be due to stress and inflammation, though more research is needed. According to the American Council of Exercise, other signs of overtraining include decreased performance, excessive fatigue, moodiness and insomnia, among other symptoms.

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The intensity of your workouts

If you're not sure how much you're benefiting from your workouts, your heart rate could be a useful tool. Tracking your heart rate during exercise can help you gauge whether you need to step it up or scale it back. Everyone's heart rate is different, so before you can fully use this tool, you should figure out your maximum heart rate. According to the Mayo Clinic, you can estimate your maximum heart rate by subtracting your age from 220. The higher your heart rate during a workout, the higher the intensity. But guidelines from the American Heart Association recommend getting at least 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity exercise, during which your heart rate hits 50 to 70 percent of your maximum heart rate. If during cardio workouts you're finding that your heart rate doesn't get that high, you may want to consider switching up your routine or kicking things up a notch.

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Your hydration levels

Staying hydrated is a key component of staying healthy. According to the American Heart Association, dehydration adds extra strain on the heart, forcing it to have to work harder to pump blood. Dehydration can also cause your blood volume to decrease and your blood to retain more sodium. According to the University of Pittsburgh Schools of the Health Sciences, your heart beats faster when you are dehydrated in order to keep up with these added strains. If after a workout or a long day outside you notice that your heart is beating a little faster than usual, try drinking more water or another hydrating beverage.

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Your risk of diabetes

Heart health and risk of diabetes seem to be connected, according to research in the Journal of Diabetes Investigation. The study showed a link between higher heart rates and incidences of Type 2 diabetes. Additional research published in Nutrition, Metabolism and Cardiovascular Diseases showed that increases in resting heart rate were correlated with a higher risk of Type 2 diabetes later in life, while a reduced resting heart rate was correlated with a lower risk. A higher heart rate certainly isn't a guarantee of developing diabetes, but it's worth mentioning any changes you notice to your doctor. Together, you can evaluate your lifestyle and diet in order to make healthy changes that may lower your diabetes risk.

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Your heart disease risk

A study in the journal Progress in Cardiovascular Diseases shows a strong correlation between elevated heart rate and incidence of heart disease and heart attacks. According to the American Heart Association, having a lower resting heart rate is a sign of better heart health and lower heart risk. Checking your heart rate in the morning to ensure it doesn't escalate above the normal range of 60 to 100 beats per minute is advised.

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Your thyroid health

In addition to the other effects of thyroid disorders such as changes in energy levels and mood, thyroid hormones can affect your heart rate. When you have too little of the thyroid hormone (hypothyroidism), your heart rate slows down. When you have too much of the thyroid hormone (hyperthyroidism), your heart rate speeds up.

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Effect of medication

Certain medications can interfere with electrical signals to the heart. This can cause the heart to beat faster in a condition called tachycardia. According to the Mayo Clinic, tachycardia caused by medications could be benign or dangerous, depending on the patient. If you notice your heart rate has increased since starting a new medication, tell your doctor right away.

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Your electrolytes are imbalanced

Electrolytes are compounds such as sodium and potassium that help to maintain a balance of fluids and hydration in your body. If your electrolytes are imbalanced, you will likely feel symptoms such as thirst or fatigue. But your heart rate can also be affected. According to the Mayo Clinic, electrolytes help to regulate electrical impulses in your heart. If your electrolytes are off balance, your heart rate can become erratic and create heart arrhythmia. 

To help ease the strain on your ticker, here are some tips from cardiologists on how to improve your heart health.

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