By Gabe Mirkin, M.D.
A resting heart rate greater than 80 beats per minute is a strong predictor for future heart attacks, diabetes and even cancer. From 1974 to 2002, 53,322 healthy people were followed at the Cooper Clinic in Dallas, Texas. Those with a resting heart rate lower than 60 beats per minute were far less likely to suffer heart attacks or to die than those with a resting heart rate greater than 80 beats per minute (Mayo ClinicProceedings, 12/12/2013).
Another study found that men with resting heart rates greater than 73 beats per minute are 140 percent more likely to die from cancer than those with resting heart rates of less than 60 beats per minute (PLoS ONE, published online August 03, 2011). Among 6,101 French men who were followed for 25 years, the chances of developing cancer rose with increasing heart rates. Compared to the group with resting heart rates of less than 60 beats per minute, those with:
- 60-73 beats per minute increased cancer risk by 60 percent
- greater than 73 beats per minute increased cancer risk 140 percent.
Doctors often prescribe drugs to slow a rapid heartbeat, but the best way to lower your resting heart rate is by exercising to make your heart stronger. A stronger heart pumps more blood with each beat so it does not have to beat as often. The harder you exercise, the more you can lower your heart rate.
In one study, 58 obese men and women exercised five times a week at 70 percent of maximum heart rate for 45 minutes. In just 12 weeks they lowered their resting heart rates by five to nine beats per minute (Br J Sports Med 2009; 43: 924-927).
How Resting Heart Rate Relates to Cancer
People who exercise regularly have longer telomeres. A telomere is the end cap of a chromosome that protects it from being destroyed when a cell reproduces. The longer your telomeres, the less likely you are to develop cancer.
Exercise also helps to protect the body from inflammation, in which the body uses its mechanisms for killing germs to destroy the body itself. The more intensely you exercise, the lower the heart rate and the greater the protection against inflammation which can lead to cancer.
How to Check Your Own Resting Heart Rate
To find out your resting heart rate, check your pulse when you first wake up in the morning, before you get out of bed. You can use a heart rate monitor, a blood pressure cuff that includes a pulse check, or a watch that shows seconds. If you have a smart phone you can download a free heart rate monitor app.
Set your device on your bedside table the night before so you do not have to move around when you wake up. If you are using a watch, place your fingers on the side of your neck where you feel a strong heartbeat. Count the beats for 10 seconds and multiply by six.
If your resting pulse rate is over 80 beats per minute and you are not sick or taking stimulants, check with your doctor.
If it is very low (40 beats per minute or lower) and you are not an athlete, you may also want to check with your doctor.
Athletes often have exceptionally low resting heart rates indicating a strong heart, but in non-athletes a low heart rate can be caused by damage to the heart’s electrical conduction system.