If you’ve ever bolted awake from a nightmare with your heart beating like a frenzied drum, you already know that sleep and rest are not the same things. Nor is your resting heart rate (RHR) and your sleeping heart rate (SHR). If you’re trying to get a handle on your health and cardiovascular fitness level, understanding the difference between resting heart rate vs. sleeping heart rate is important.
Read on to find out what each measurement means, and what you can do to improve them.
Resting Heart Rate vs. Sleeping Heart Rate
You might think that your pulse, or heart rate, is one simple number, but the truth is, there are different ways to take your heart rate, and they can tell you different things about your health.
What is a resting heart rate?
Your resting heart rate is how much blood your heart is pumping when you are at rest, not exercising, per the American Heart Association. This is the least amount of blood your heart is pumping while you’re awake. Many factors can affect your resting heart rate, including the temperature, the way you’re sitting, your emotions, certain medications, and whether you are very active (often athletes have lower resting heart rates, but we’ll talk more about that later).
What is a sleeping heart rate?
A sleeping heart rate is just what it sounds like—your heart rate when you’re sleeping. As you fall asleep, your heart rate gradually slows to its resting heart rate in light sleep. When you slip into a deep sleep, your heart rate will slow even further—about 20 to 30 percent below your resting heart rate.
What can your resting heart rate tell you about your health?
Heart rate is measured in the number of beats per minute (BPM). According to the American Heart Association, a healthy resting heart rate for adults ranges from 60 to 100 BPM. If you have consistent RHR readings that exceed that range, your heart may be working harder than it should. “Your resting heart rate reflects how hard your heart works when you’re quietly sitting and relaxed. This measurement generally reflects your overall level of health and fitness,” says Jeffrey M. Tyler, MD, a cardiologist at Providence St. Joseph Hospital in California.
The best time to take this all-important measurement is first thing in the morning or right before bed when you’re relaxed. “Don’t measure your resting heart rate when you’re anxious or under stress. You also won’t get an accurate reading within one hour of strenuous exercise,” says Majid Basit, MD, a cardiologist with Memorial Hermann Medical Group in Texas.
Multiple factors affect resting heart rate, including age, weight, and fitness level. “People who participate in regular moderate to intense exercise such as running, swimming and other aerobic activities, will on average have a lower resting heart rate. This is because exercise strengthens the heart muscle and allows it to work more efficiently, requiring fewer beats per minute,” says Dr. Tyler. “Medications such as beta-blockers, and certain health conditions, including thyroid disease, can also impact upon resting heart rate,” adds Dr. Basit.
“Exercise strengthens the heart muscle and allows it to work more efficiently, requiring fewer beats per minute.”—Jeffrey M. Tyler, MD, a cardiologist at Providence St. Joseph Hospital in California
What can your sleeping heart rate tell you about your health?
According to Dr. Basit, a normal sleeping heart rate in adults ranges from 40 to 100 BPM. “It’s important to not be alarmed if you’re using a heart rate tracker and it shows a lower heart rate while you’re sleeping. Sleeping heart rate is also a good way to track your daily heart rate since it’s not affected by factors like pain, stress, and anxiety,” he says.
Sleeping heart rate fluctuates throughout the night, based on the stage of sleep you’re in. Dreaming can also have an impact. “Sleeping heart rate encompasses the entire trend of heartbeats, as one cycles through different sleep stages. It’s varied and unpredictable because it can drop lower than your resting heart rate and then spike upwards, depending on brain activity,” says advanced practice registered nurse Christine Kingsley, APRN of the Lung Institute.
Your body cycles through REM (rapid eye movement) and non-REM (non-rapid eye movement) sleep four to five times a night. When you fall asleep you enter non-REM (light sleep). “During non-REM sleep, the decrease in the body’s core temperature and the relaxation of muscles in the body causes heart rates to drop by around 20 to 30 percent less than the resting heart rate,” says Kingsley.
Your sleeping heart rate continues to fall as you enter deeper stages of sleep. “While we sleep, the body relaxes, and our body temperature drops. Our nervous system switches from a fight-or-flight system to a system that focuses on energy conservation and system repair. Our built-in pacemaker can sense these changes and tells the heart to beat slower,” explains Dr. Basit.
Once you start dreaming, though, your sleeping heart rate may spike. “When the body enters REM sleep, where dreams occur, the heart rate increases in response by rising to the same level as when the body is awake and active. This spike basically reflects the level of activity in the dream, so if you’re running in your dream, you’ll have a runner’s heart rate at that point of your sleep,” explains Kingsley.
So, when it comes to comparing your resting heart rate vs. sleeping heart rate, generally your sleeping heart rate will be a bit lower—and since it’s not affected by heart rate spikes from stress and anxiety, it may give you a better picture of health when also taking into account your resting heart rate.
How to properly take your resting heart rate
All of that said, you might wonder how to best take your resting heart rate. Since emotion and activity both spike heart rate, to get an accurate reading, take your resting heart rate when you’re relaxed, and your body and brain are still. You can use a heart rate monitor, fitness tracker, or other verified device. (As mentioned, some wearable devices will also track your sleeping heart rate if you wear them at night.)
You can also take your pulse with these steps provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC):
- Find the radial pulse on the artery of the wrist, located under the thumb pad
- Place the tips of your index and middle fingers over the artery, while pressing lightly
- Take a full 60-second count of your heartbeats
- You can also count your heartbeats for 30 seconds and double that number
- Start counting on a beat. The first beat is counted as “0”
Can you improve your heart rate?
Studies have shown that a higher resting heart rate can increase the likelihood of developing heart disease and even of dying early in life, so it’s important to improve this health marker if you’re able to,” says Dr. Basit. Good words to live by. Literally.
Just like any other muscle, you can improve your heart by working it. And no, that doesn’t mean falling in and out of love. It does mean exercising regularly and aerobically if you’re not already doing so. Dr. Basit recommends fitting in sustained, regular exercise for 30 to 45 minutes each day.
“I have had patients that run triathlons with sleeping heart rates of 30 beats per minute and resting heart rates around 40 beats per minute. While we don’t all aim to become elite athletes, we should strive to become more knowledgeable about our health and try to make our bodies into healthier, more efficient machines,” he says.
Reducing or managing stress, and eating heart-healthy food, can also help lower both resting and sleeping heart rates.“Good sleep hygiene like avoiding caffeine close to bedtime, going to sleep the same time every night, and avoiding bright lights late at night all help to promote a lower sleeping heart rate,” says Dr. Basit.
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