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Preventive Care
Heart Health

What Is a Concerning Heart Rate?

31 May 2024 · 7 mins read


A concerning heart rate is a heart rate inappropriately above or below the recommended resting heart rate. Learn about conditions including bradycardia, tachycardia, and tips to stay healthy.

The human heart is a remarkable organ that continuously pumps blood throughout the body, supplying vital oxygen and nutrients to sustain life.Monitoring heart rate provides valuable insights into an individual's cardiovascular health.

In this comprehensive guide, we will analyse different aspects of heart rate, explaining various influencing factors. We will also explain causes of abnormal heart rates, including when to seek medical attention. We also provide helpful tips for maintaining a healthy heart rate.

How Does the Heart Work, and Why Does It Beat?

The heart is a muscular organ that serves as a complex and elegant pump, circulating blood throughout the circulatory system to various organs of the body. It beats rhythmically and hence provides continual flow of blood.

The cardiac cycle begins with the right atrium of the heart receiving deoxygenated blood from the body. This chamber acts as a reservoir priming the right ventricle which then in turn pumps the blood to the lungs to receive oxygen. Blood subsequently flows to the left atrium and in turn left ventricle, which, as it contracts, propels the oxygen-rich blood into the arteries, ensuring oxygen and nutrients reach vital organs.

The heart’s rhythmic contractions are initiated and coordinated by electrical signals from the sinoatrial (SA) node, also referred to as the heart’s natural pacemaker. A normal SA node is able to adapt and change heart rate on demand. Thus, when an increase in cardiac output is required, the heart rate will generally increase to meet the demand.

What Is Heart Rate?

Heart rate refers to the number of times the heart contracts in a minute, typically measured in beats per minute (bpm). It is considered one of the key indicators of cardiovascular health and overall well-being.

The range of normal resting heart rate for an adult is 60 to 100 bpm. Lower heart rates sometimes (not always) indicate better cardiovascular fitness.

Monitoring heart rate is essential for assessing fitness levels, managing stress, and identifying potential health issues. Factors such as physical activity, stress, and age also influence the heart rate.

What Are the Factors That Influence the Heart Rate?

There are several factors that can influence heart rate including:

  • Age: Heart rate typically decreases with age. In childhood, the heart tends to beat faster. With ageing, heart rate tends to reduce to around 70-100 beats per minute in youth, whilst older individuals often have a resting heart rate between 60-100 beats per minute. This is due to changes in the heart electrical system and decreased responsiveness to hormones amongst other factors.
  • Activity level: Your heart rate differs when at rest compared to when you are active. Resting heart rate is lower and can be used as a baseline measurement. During exercise, your heart rate increases to supply the muscles with more oxygen. Similarly, those with a sedentary lifestyle may sometimes experience lower heart rates. 
  • Fitness level: Fitness level influences heart rate, with fitter individuals often having lower resting heart rates. For extremely fit individuals, the resting rate can range from 40 to 50 bpm. Regular exercise augments the heart’s stroke volume, enabling it to pump more efficiently and supply oxygen. This gain in efficiency reduces the need for a high resting heart rate, resulting in a slower and healthier pulse for physically fit people.
  • Emotions: Stress, anxiety, and other strong emotions can elevate heart rate. The body's “fight or flight” response (stress response) increases the heart rate to prepare for potential threats. A simple analogy would be the sudden surge in heart rate felt during a fright or sudden shock.
  • Medications and stimulants: Certain medications, caffeine, and nicotine can influence heart rate.Stimulants like caffeine and nicotine can temporarily elevate heart rate, while certain medications may increase or decrease it.

What Are the Types of Concerning Heart Rate Conditions?

Understanding when a heart rate becomes concerning is crucial for maintaining good health. There are three main categories of concerning heart rate conditions:

Irregular heartbeat or arrhythmia

Arrhythmia refers to an irregular heartbeat, where the heart beats too fast (tachycardia), too slow (bradycardia), or in an erratic pattern. Various factors, including heart disease, electrolyte imbalances, thyroid disease, infections, and fever can cause it.

Arrhythmias can sometimes (but not always) lead to palpitations, chest discomfort, dizziness, and fainting. Serious arrhythmias may disrupt the heart’s ability to pump blood effectively, increasing the risk of stroke or heart failure. Treatment options include medications, lifestyle changes, or medical procedures to restore normal heart rhythm.

Too slow or bradycardia

Bradycardia is an abnormally low resting heart rate, typically below 60 beats per minute in adults. It can result from various factors, including certain medications, heart disease, thyroid disease, or an inherent problem with the heart’s electrical system.

Mild bradycardia is usually well tolerated and rarely associated with symptoms. However, in some cases, bradycardia may lead to symptoms like fatigue, dizziness, and even fainting. In severe cases, it can reduce the heart’s ability to pump blood effectively, potentially requiring medical intervention such as a pacemaker (or battery implant) to regulate the heart’s rhythm and restore a normal heart rate.

Too fast or tachycardia

Tachycardia refers to an abnormally high heart rate, typically exceeding 100 beats per minute in adults at rest. It can result from stress, fever, anaemia, thyroid disease, or other heart conditions. Tachycardia may cause palpitations, shortness of breath, and dizziness.

It can strain the heart, increasing the risk of complications like blood clots or heart failure. The choices for treatment vary based on the underlying cause and severity.

Mild tachycardia is not usually associated with symptoms and may need no treatment at all except healthy lifestyle and exercise. However, in some cases, especially if associated with symptoms medications or medical procedures to correct the abnormal heart rhythm.

What Are the Causes of Concerning Heart Rate Conditions?

Several factors and conditions can lead to concerning heart rates. Here are some of the primary causes:

  • Underlying medical condition: Common illnesses affecting the heart, such as coronary artery disease, heart valve disorders, and congenital heart defects can disrupt the heart’s normal rhythm and lead to concerning heart rates. Other medical causes include severe infections and thyroid disease. Some people have an underlying abnormality with the electrical circuits or wires within the heart and these may need medications or a procedure to correct.
  • External factors like extreme temperatures: Exposure to extreme cold or heat can affect heart rate. Hypothermia can slow heart rate, while heatstroke can lead to tachycardia.
  • Overexertion or overtraining: Intense physical activity without adequate rest and recovery can lead to tachycardia. This is primarily essential for athletes and individuals engaging in strenuous workouts.
  • Dehydration and electrolyte imbalances: Studies suggest that dehydration and imbalances in essential electrolytes like potassium and sodium can disrupt heart rhythm and result in concerning heart rates.

When to Seek Medical Attention?

Recognising the signs that indicate the need for immediate medical care is vital for protecting your heart health. If you experience any of the following symptoms, seek medical attention promptly:

  • Persistent or recurrent chest pain or discomfort.
  • Severe shortness of breath.
  • Fainting or loss of consciousness.
  • Rapid or irregular heartbeat.
  • Severe dizziness or light-headedness.
  • Unexplained fatigue or weakness.

It is important to remember that not all heart diseases are associated with symptoms and regular check-ups and heart rate monitoring can help recognise and address potential issues before they become abnormal and unhealthy.

How to Maintain a Healthy Heart Rate?

Maintaining a healthy heart rate is essential for overall well-being. Here are some tips to help you achieve and sustain a healthy heart rate:

  • Regular exercise: Engaging yourself in regular physical activity helps to strengthen your heart and lower the resting heart rate.
  • Stay hydrated: Proper hydration supports cardiovascular health and helps maintain a steady heart rate.
  • Reduce caffeine and nicotine intake: Limit caffeine consumption and avoid nicotine products, as they can lead to elevated heart rates.
  • Manage stress: Practising relaxation techniques, including deep breathing, meditation, or yoga, helps reduce stress and its impact on heart rate.

What Are the Frequently Asked Questions About Heart Rate?

What is an unhealthy heart rate for women?

A regular heart rate for women falls in the range of 60 to 100 bpm at rest. Any persistent heart rate outside the typical range may warrant medical attention.

What is an unhealthy heart rate for a man?

A concerning heart rate for a man also falls within the same general range as for women, typically below 60 or above 100 bpm at rest. However, deviations from this range may indicate underlying issues.

What is an unhealthy heart rate for a child?

A concerning heart rate for a child depends on their age. For infants under 1 year, a heart rate significantly above or below the mean resting pulse rate (RPR) of 110 - 150 bpm could be concerning.

As children age, a heart rate significantly exceeding the mean RPR for their age group can also be concerning. For example, a heart rate substantially higher or lower than the mean RPR of 70 - 100 bpm in early adolescence might indicate a potential medical condition. A healthcare professional should evaluate it.

What is an unhealthy heart rate when exercising?

During exercise, a healthy heart rate can vary depending on the intensity of exercise and individual fitness level. However, a heart rate significantly higher than the maximum heart rate for one’s age may be a cause for concern.

To know your maximum safe heart rate when exercising, subtract your age from 220. For example, if you are 40 years, your maximum heart rate when exercising should not exceed 180 bpm per minute.

Can a high heart rate cause a heart attack?

A consistently high resting heart rate, known as tachycardia, can strain the heart and increase the risk of heart-related issues. However, it is not a direct cause of a heart attack. Heart attacks result from a blockage in the coronary arteries, restricting blood flow to the heart muscle.

Schedule an Appointment at Pantai Hospitals

Understanding what constitutes a concerning heart rate and the factors influencing it is crucial for maintaining cardiovascular health. 

Regular monitoring, a healthy lifestyle, and prompt medical attention when needed can help ensure your heart continues to beat steadily and reliably, sustaining your overall well-being.

Various branches of Pantai Hospitals Malaysia offer comprehensive heart screening packages including heart rate monitoring. 

Remember, individual variability exists; consulting a healthcare professional/cardiologist for personalised advice is always recommended. 

Get in touch with us to book an appointment today for a consultation, or find out more about our Cardiology Care Services at your nearest Pantai Hospital.

Pantai Hospitals have been accredited by the Malaysian Society for Quality in Health (MSQH) for its commitment to patient safety and service quality.

This article has been medically reviewed by Cardiology specialist, Dr Timothy James Watson @ Ibrahim Abdul-Aziz.

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