She is very proud. So, proud she’s posted on Facebook, “Why are the doctors and nurses so surprised when I tell them my resting heart rate is 38?” Here’s why, they don’t believe you and neither do I.
Certainly, the writer of the post is fit. Being fit is good. She’s fit at an age when most of her friends are waiting to be called Grandmother. Not that she’s singular in her Masters level fitness. There are a lot of Grandmothers that can smoke me in a marathon. I know, it has happened. However, this athlete, to be polite as possible, is over 50 years old and she’s full of crap.
A disclaimer here: some people have a resting heart rate that is between 30 and 40 beats per minute. I just don’t believe the person I’m writing about is in that group. There’s a simple reason, she’s been exercising for years – seems counterintuitive. You’d expect an athlete with decades of training to have a low resting heart rate. She probably does compared to non-athletes, just it isn’t 38 bpm (beats per minute).
“While the normal resting heart rate for adults ranges from 60 to 100 beats per minute, conditioned athletes and other highly fit individuals might have normal resting heart rates of 40 to 60 beats per minute.”(1)
Why is it that every time I see a post by some athlete bragging about their low heart rate it is 38? That’s because their heart rate isn’t 38.
It is like when I read in medical records containing a patient’s respiratory rate. It was almost always 16 breaths per minute as recorded by some caregiver. No one’s respiratory rate is always 16. That is especially true when the patient is in the back of an ambulance, in the emergency room, or asleep at night –for examples. Another common respiratory rate is written as 12. In those cases, the patient was alive, so they were breathing (the two go together), and the person recording the number simple wrote done what seemed likely. I promise, they didn’t take the time to count respiratory rate.
Let’s look at 38 for a heart rate. Take your heart rate right now – I’ll wait. What did you do? Did you count your pulse for 15 seconds and multiple by 4? If you did you couldn’t get 38. You could have counted your pulse for 30 seconds or a minute and gotten 38, but your heart rate wasn’t 38 unless you are one of those younger elite athletes or on a drug to lower your heart rate or have an bradycardia and living with a pacemaker.
If you’re an athlete, an older one, say over 50, and you have a heart rate that runs around 38 you might end up with a pacemaker. (2) “New research suggests that athletes with low resting heart rates may experience irregular heart patterns later in life.” (2,3) A number of my friends, all elite athletes ended up with heart problems.
These friends with heart conditions later in life included: One Olympian, two National Champions, and one winner of the Comrades Race in South Africa. (4) The Comrades athlete also held a World Record in endurance cycling. All are very close friends or were, one recently died from his heart problem.
The Facebook braggadocio seemed extreme. The author is a woman in her 50s. “Gender is another factor in resting heart rate norms because women at various fitness levels tend to have higher pulse rates on average than men of comparable fitness levels. For example, the average resting heart rate of an elite 30-year-old female athlete ranges from 54 to 59 beats per minute, while the resting heart rate for men of the same age and fitness level ranges from 49 to 54..”(1)
In a peer-review article, investigators looked at athletes near 50 (all men with a mean age of 48) and found, “Resting HR was significantly lower in athletes than in controls (62·8 ± 6·7 versus 74·0 ± 10·4 beats per minute (bpm), respectively; P<0·001).” That is a resting heart rate of 62.8 in male athletes – women run slightly faster when it comes to heart rate. (5)
Furthermore, the author with the low heart rate claims to be a life-long athlete. That actually creates the opposite of what she’s claimed. “Long-term sport practice at a world class level causes an increase in resting heart rate, diastolic and mean blood pressure, and decrease of the parasympathetic dominance and this may result from decreasing adjustment to large training load.” (6)
Being fit is great. Making statements about fitness that are scientifically invalid are wrong. The 38 beats per minute athlete runs one of those self-employed fitness programs where she’s the head (and only) coach. Her claim, the 38 thing, was a marketing piece to share with her followers suggesting how well her program works for her and hoping perspective clients will suppose they’ll get similar results. Her claim is false.
I contacted a friend who is an ex-college cross country runner. She’s maintained an elite level of fitness now that she’s out of college. I asked her,”Sarah, what is your resting heart rate?” She replied, “In the 50s.”
- Kwon O1,Park S2, Kim YJ3, Min SY4, Kim YR5, Nam GB5, Choi KJ5, Kim YH5. The exercise heart rate profile in master athletes compared to healthy controls. Clin Physiol Funct Imaging. 2016 Jul;36(4):286-92. doi: 10.1111/cpf.12226. Epub 2014 Dec 23
- Słomko W1,Słomko J2, Kowalik T3, Klawe JJ2, Tafil-Klawe M4, Cudnoch-Jędrzejewska A5, Newton JL6, Zalewski P2. Long-term high intensity sport practice modulates adaptative changes in athletes’ heart and in the autonomic nervous system profile. J Sports Med Phys Fitness. 2018 Jul-Aug;58(7-8):1146-1152. doi: 10.23736/S0022-4707.17.07230-9. Epub 2017 May 5