How to check your pulse and heart rate

Your pulse is the number of times your heart beats to pump blood around your body. It can be felt on your wrist or neck.

Key points

  1. Measuring your pulse tells you how fast your heart is beating. The easiest place to find your pulse is in your wrist. 
  2. A normal pulse beats in a regular rhythm. A normal resting heart rate for most people is between 60–100 beats per minute.
  3. If your heart is beating too slow or too fast, or if the beat is irregular, this may be the sign of a heart condition.
  4. See your doctor if you are worried about your pulse or heart rate. 

What is your pulse?

Your pulse is the number of times your heart beats to pump blood around your body. Your pulse can be felt on your wrist or neck. It has the same number as your heart rate, eg, if your heart beats 70 times in one minute (heart rate), your pulse would be 70 beats per minute (BPM). 

A normal pulse beats in a regular rhythm. Some people have an irregular pulse, which means your pulse beats in an irregular rhythm or jumps about. 

Listen to an example of regular pulse and an irregular pulse from the British Heart Foundation, UK. 

What is a normal heart rate?

A normal heart rate beats between 60–100 beats per minute. This happens when you are resting and not exercising or exerting yourself. You can check your heart rate by taking your pulse and counting how many times your heart beats in a minute. 

When you exercise, your heart pumps faster to deliver more oxygen to your muscles. When your heart pumps faster, your heart rate increases. The harder your body works, the faster your heart beats. Therefore, it's normal to have a high heart rate of up to 160 beats per minute or more when you are exercising.

Other factors that can affect your heart rate include:

An athlete who is very fit can have a normal resting heart rate of less than 60 beats per minute. 

How do I find my pulse? 

Your wrist is the easiest place to find your pulse. Follow the steps below to find your pulse:

  1. Turn your hand so that your palm is facing upwards. 
  2. Place the 3 middle fingers from your other hand over your wrist below the base of your thumb.
  3. Press lightly to feel your pulse. Press slightly harder if you can't feel anything or try your other hand.

How do I check my pulse?

You can check your heart rate by taking your pulse and counting how many times your heart beats in a minute. 

  1. Find your pulse as explained above.
  2. Count your pulse for 30 seconds. 
  3. Double the number that you have just counted. This will be your heart rate or pulse per minute (beats per minute). 
  4. Remember to also check if your pulse beats at a regular or irregular rhythm. 


Image credit: Heart Foundation, NZ 

There are fitness trackers or devices available in retail outlets that can measure your heart rate. Don't rely on these devices too much as the accuracy depends on the quality of the device. 

See your doctor or GP if you are worried about your pulse. 

What is an irregular pulse?

An irregular pulse is when your pulse is irregular and jumps about. This happens when you have an irregular heart rate or an arrhythmia. You may feel your pulse beats very slow or very fast even when you are at rest. You may also get palpitations and feel your heart rate goes very slow or racing fast. 

Why is it important to get an irregular pulse checked?

Although an irregular pulse may be harmless, get it checked by your healthcare team as it could be a sign of a heart condition such as atrial fibrillation. Your doctor can find out the cause of your irregular pulse by doing tests such as an electrocardiogram or ECG

What are heart palpitations?

A heart palpitation is when you suddenly become aware of your heartbeat. It may feel like your heart has added or missed a beat. It may feel fast or slow. Some people say it feels like their heart is racing, fluttering or pounding.

See your doctor if you have palpitations accompanied by other symptoms such as dizziness, shortness of breath and a feeling of anxiety, or if you are concerned.   

Exercise and heart rate

Your heart needs exercise to keep it fit and healthy, like any other muscle around your body. Regular exercise can help reduce your risk of heart disease and other health conditions such as diabetes and high blood pressure. 

To keep your heart healthy, it is recommended you do 150 minutes of low to moderate intensity exercise a week. You can measure the intensity of your exercise by using your heart rate. Your heart rate should be at 50–70% of your approximate maximum heart rate to exercise at a low to moderate intensity. Your approximate maximum heart rate can be calculated by subtracting your age from 220. 

So if you are 40 years old:

  • your approximate maximum heart rate will be 220 – 40 = 180 beats per minute
  • your heart rate should be at 50–70% of your approximate maximum heart rate
  • 180 X 50% = 90 beats per minute
  • 180 X 70% = 126 beats per minute 
  • your target heart rate for low to moderate intensity exercise should be between 90–126 beats per minute.

You can also refer to the table below for an estimate of your target heart rate based on your age. 


Image credit: Heart Foundation, NZ

If you have a heart condition or are on any heart medicines, eg, medicines to slow your heart rate such as beta-blockers, talk to your doctor before starting any exercise regime. 

Learn more

How to check your pulse (heart rate) Heart Foundation, NZ
How do I check my pulse? NHS, UK  
How to check your pulse British Heart Foundation, UK 

References

  1. How to check your pulse (heart rate) Heart Foundation, NZ