Heart rate and blood pressure are taken at most doctor’s visits for good reason. They’re both vital signs that offer clues about how well your heart is functioning. And while they’re often confused, they measure two different things.
Heart rate, or pulse, is how many times your heart beats per minute. But blood pressure is the force of your blood as it presses against the walls of blood vessels.
In this article, we’ll break down the differences between heart rate versus blood pressure and whether they’re related. We’ll also cover healthy ranges for these measures and steps you can take to improve your heart health.
What’s a normal blood pressure?
Each heartbeat forces blood through your blood vessels. This delivers oxygen and nutrients via the blood to other organs in the body.
As your blood moves, it creates pressure against the walls of your arteries. This is known as blood pressure.
Blood pressure is measured with two numbers:
- Systolic blood pressure (the first number) measures the force your heart exerts as it pumps blood through your arteries.
- Diastolic blood pressure (the last number) is the force your heart exerts between beats.
Generally, normal blood pressure is anything less than 120/80 millimeters of mercury (mm Hg).1 High blood pressure (or hypertension) is considered anything over 130/80 mm Hg.
Keep in mind that your blood pressure fluctuates throughout the day. However, if you consistently have high blood pressure, your doctor may diagnose you with hypertension.
What are the risks of high blood pressure?
High blood pressure damages the walls of the arteries and other organs in the body. Over time, hypertension can increase the risk of several health conditions, including:
- Cardiovascular disease
- Heart attack
- Kidney issues
- Vision problems
Luckily, you can improve your blood pressure and heart health by making healthy lifestyle changes. More on that later.
What’s a healthy resting heart rate?
Your resting heart rate is the number of times your heart beats when you’re calm and at rest. A normal resting heart rate is typically between 60 to 100 beats per minute.
But heart rate can vary depending on several factors. This includes:
- Age – In general, heart rate tends to decrease with age3. The heart can weaken over time, especially as physical activity declines.
- Fitness level – People who are physically fit tend to have lower resting heart rates. In fact, some athletes have heart rates in the 50s or even 40s.
- Sex – The average heart rate for men is between 70 to 72 beats per minute.4 Yet the average heart rate for women is between 78 to 82 beats per minute. Since women’s hearts are smaller than men’s, they have to work at a faster rate.
Your heart rate may fall outside the normal range for many reasons. Stress and exercise both increase your heart rate temporarily. But as your body recovers, your heart rate returns to its baseline.
That said, any resting heart rate over 100 beats per minute is considered tachycardia. This is also known as rapid heart rate. Tachycardia is linked with an increased risk of hypertension.5
Heart rate and blood pressure: Is there a relationship?
Many assume that when your heart rate rises, your blood pressure does the same and vice versa. And while that can happen, it’s not always the case.
Your blood pressure and heart rate both increase at certain times, like when you’re exercising or under stress. Other times both will drop, such as during sleep or from fainting.
Yet blood pressure and heart rate don’t increase at the same rate. When the heart rate rises, healthy blood vessels expand to support the increased blood flow. In fact, when you exercise your heart rate can even double with only a modest rise in blood pressure.
Blood pressure may drop in other situations, causing your heart rate to rise to make up for the dip. This may happen if your body has a serious infection, like sepsis.6
What affects blood pressure and heart rate?
Several factors can influence your heart rate and blood pressure. Here are a few.
Your heart is a muscle. The more you exercise, the stronger it gets. Staying active keeps your heart in shape so it doesn’t have to work as hard when you’re at rest.
As mentioned, people who are physically fit tend to have lower resting heart rates than those that are sedentary. But exercise can also lower blood pressure by roughly 5 to 8 mm Hg.7 It improves the elasticity of blood vessels, allowing blood to move more freely.
Stress triggers your body’s “fight or flight” response. This causes your heart rate and blood pressure to rise temporarily until the stressor has passed.
However, many today live in a state of chronic stress. Over time this can lead to hypertension.8
When you smoke, carbon monoxide enters your blood. This makes it more difficult for oxygen to get to your heart. Research shows smoking can increase your resting heart rate and blood pressure.9 10
Medications such as beta-blockers and calcium channel blockers are used to lower blood pressure. But these drugs often slow down your heart rate as well.
In addition, many other medications can affect your heart rate and blood pressure.
Medications that may increase blood pressure include:
- Over-the-counter pain meds such as aspirin, Motrin IB, Aleve, and Advil
- Nasal decongestants
- Certain antidepressants, including MAO inhibitors, tricyclic antidepressants, and Prozac
- Hormonal birth control pills, patches, and vaginal rings
- ADHD medications 11 12
Medications that may affect heart rate include:
- Thyroid medications
- Certain antibiotics including Zithromax, amoxicillin, ciprofloxacin, and levofloxacin
- Asthma medications
- Some antidepressants such as tricyclic antidepressants and serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs)13
If you’re on any of these medications, it’s important to monitor your blood pressure and heart rate. If you notice any changes, contact your doctor.
How to measure heart rate and blood pressure
Checking your heart rate is simple. All you need is two fingers and 30 seconds. Simply press your pointer and middle fingers gently on your opposite wrist below the base of your thumb.
You can also check your pulse on the side of your neck right next to your windpipe. Count the number of beats in 30 seconds and then multiply that number by two.
Several devices can also check your heart rate. These include:
- Digital fitness trackers that strap around your chest
- Pulse oximeters
- Smartphone apps such as ZYTO Link
Blood pressure measurements, on the other hand, are usually done with a blood pressure cuff at your doctor’s office. However, you can also get a monitor to measure your blood pressure from home. Some of these monitors wrap around your wrist, while others are connected to a device with the traditional cuff that you wrap around your bicep.
If you do take blood pressure measurements at home, make sure to follow these steps to get the most accurate reading:
- Sit still for 5 minutes before the measurement
- Avoid exercise, caffeine, and smoking 30 minutes before measuring
- Sit upright with your back straight and feet on the floor during the measurement
- Keep your cuffed arm on a flat surface at heart level
- Retake your blood pressure measurement after 1 minute
- Average the readings together (consider taking a 3rd measurement as well)14
How to lower blood pressure and improve heart health
If your heart rate or blood pressure is not in a healthy range, making some simple lifestyle changes may help.
Here are 4 ways to improve your heart health.
Eat a healthy diet
Eating a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains can help keep your heart healthy. In addition, avoiding foods high in sodium or saturated fats may help.
Physical activity is crucial for keeping your heart healthy. Regular exercise can prevent high blood pressure from turning into hypertension. But it can also lower blood pressure in hypertensive patients. A good rule of thumb is to aim for around 30 minutes of moderate exercise each day. Examples of moderate activity include brisk walking, gardening, swimming, and leisurely bike rides.
Chronic stress can lead to high blood pressure. So managing stress is key. Here are a few ways to keep your stress in check:
- Make time for daily relaxation. Whether that’s yoga, taking a bath, or sipping on a cup of tea, set aside time each day to relax.
- Learn to say no. Taking on too much is a recipe for overwhelm. If too much is on your plate, it’s okay to say no.
- Practice gratitude. This trains your brain to focus on what’s going well instead of going into worry mode.
Get plenty of sleep
Lack of sleep is linked to an increased risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke. So aim to get at least 7 to 9 hours of sleep every night. If you struggle with sleep, here are some tips to improve your sleep quality:
- Sleep in a dark, quiet, and cool room. This helps reset your body’s circadian rhythm.
- Stick to a regular sleep schedule. Go to bed at the same time every night, even on the weekends.
- Avoid screens 1-2 hours before bed. These devices emit blue light, which can disrupt your natural sleep-wake cycles.
- Have a winding down ritual. Do some relaxing activities before bed to ease into sleep. Meditate, journal, or do some breathing exercises.
Heart rate and blood pressure are two measurements that offer a snapshot of your heart health. Checking these measurements regularly helps you monitor how well your heart is functioning.
If your blood pressure or heart rate is not in a normal range, practicing healthy lifestyle habits may help. Exercise, quality sleep, reducing stress, and eating a nutritious diet all help improve your heart health.
About Mindy Palmer
Mindy Palmer is a wellness writer and certified holistic health coach. She enjoys inspiring others to live healthier lives by creating informative content for leading-edge health and wellness brands.
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