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Why a lower resting heart rates signals improved athletic fitness

The heart of the matter

Monitoring various health metrics can provide valuable insights into your overall fitness and performance. One of these metrics is resting heart rate. A lower resting heart rate is generally considered a sign of cardiovascular fitness and health. But why does this happen?

The cardiovascular system, comprising the heart and blood vessels, is responsible for pumping blood throughout the body, supplying oxygen and nutrients to your tissues. When you exercise regularly, you're essentially training your cardiovascular system to become more efficient at its job.

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How exercise affects the heart

Regular exercise, especially aerobic exercise, strengthens the heart muscle. A stronger heart can pump the same amount of blood but with fewer beats per minute. This is because each contraction is stronger and more blood is ejected from the heart in each beat. Essentially, your heart does less work for the same output, leading to a lower resting heart rate.  

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Autonomic Nervous System Adaptations

The autonomic nervous system, which controls involuntary functions like heart rate, also adapts to regular physical training. It consists of two main branches: the sympathetic nervous system, often called the “fight or flight” system, and the parasympathetic nervous system, known as the “rest and digest" system.

Sympathetic v Parasympathetic

When you exercise, the sympathetic nervous system kicks in, increasing your heart rate to pump more blood (and therefore more oxygen and nutrients) to your muscles that are working hard. On the flip side, the parasympathetic nervous system is more active when you are at rest, helping to lower heart rate and promote recovery.

Vagal Tone

Vagal tone refers to the activity level of the vagus nerve, which is a key player in controlling your heart rate. Think of it as the "calm-down" signal for your heart. When the vagus nerve is more active, it helps slow down your heart rate.

For athletes and regular exercisers, improved vagal tone is a good thing. It means that your heart is better at switching gears—from being pumped up during exercise to calming down afterward. This is a sign that your body is adapting well to the physical stress of your workouts.

Vagal tone is closely related to another term you might have heard: heart rate variability (HRV). A higher HRV is a sign that your heart is more flexible in responding to changes, whether it's the stress of a workout or just the ups and downs of everyday life. And a more flexible heart is a healthier heart, which often comes with a lower resting heart rate. Most sports watches have functions to measure your heart rate, although some are more accurate than others. There are also apps such as Elite HRV that you can download on your phone.

 

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Common indicators of improved fitness

  • A noticeable drop in resting heart rate
  • Improved endurance and stamina
  • Faster heart rate recovery times post-workout
  • Lower perceived exertion during similar workout intensities and duration
  • Lower heart rate drift (i.e. gradual increase in heart rate) during longer endurance sessions.

Exceptions to the Rule

While a lower resting heart rate is often seen as a positive indicator of cardiovascular health, it's not the sole metric for assessing overall fitness. Various factors can influence heart rate, including caffeine, eating food close to exercise, medications like beta-blockers, and even dehydration.

Genetics also come into play. Some individuals naturally have a lower or higher resting heart rate, which may not necessarily reflect their level of fitness.

It's crucial to be aware that over-training can lead to a low resting heart rate as well, often accompanied by symptoms like fatigue and decreased performance. In such cases, a low resting heart rate serves as a warning sign rather than a positive outcome of training.

If you notice a sudden or consistent change in your resting heart rate whether it's unusually low or high it's a good idea to consult a healthcare provider for an evaluation.

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