How to Check Your Own Heart Health

February is American Heart Month, so it’s a good time to think about your heart health. Heart disease remains the leading cause of death in America, accounting for 1 in 4 deaths every year.1 Unfortunately, that trend only seems to be rising.2 About half of all adults have at least one of the three major risk factors for heart disease: high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or a smoking habit.3 

The irony of these statistics is that heart disease is preventable. Keeping your heart healthy is no big mystery. It’s a matter of simple, healthy lifestyle choices, like getting enough exercise, keeping your stress levels in check, and eating a heart healthy diet. But since cultural norms tilt the other way, we may not be motivated to change our habits until we find out there’s a problem.

That’s why it’s important to check in on your heart health from time to time. A regular health checkup can identify early warning signs of heart health problems long before there are any noticeable symptoms. If you have a family history of heart disease, you may already be keeping an eye on your blood pressure or cholesterol levels. But if you haven’t seen a doctor recently, you may have no idea how your heart is doing.

If you feel fine, but you want to know how healthy your heart is, there are some simple ways you can check your own heart health at home. While these are not a substitute for a medical checkup, they can give you a general idea of where your heart health stands, and help identify anything abnormal. (Of course, if you have any worrying symptoms, like chest or shoulder pain, shortness of breath, or frequent dizziness, you should see a doctor right away.)

Here are 3 simple ways to check your own heart health at home:

1. Check Your Resting Heart Rate

Your resting heart rate is the number of times your heart beats per minute while at rest. This is an indicator of how fit your heart muscle is, and how well it can handle stress. A normal resting heart rate for the average person ranges between 60-100 beats per minute. A rate on the lower end is generally considered a sign of better cardiovascular health.4

Here’s how that works: Physical activity raises your heart rate, making your heart work harder to pump blood throughout the body. But just like any other muscle, the more you exercise your heart, the stronger it gets. A fit, healthy heart pumps blood more efficiently, ultimately working less hard to perform its basic functions. That means a lower resting heart rate, and less wear-and-tear over time.

With practice, your heart also gets better at recovery from stress. After a period of exertion, your body switches on the parasympathetic nervous system to restore balance. When your body is good at switching off the stress response and switching on recovery mode, it’s less likely to get stuck in chronic stress mode. An active parasympathetic nervous system means a lower heart rate. 

You can check your resting heart rate with a wearable fitness tracker or even an Apple Watch, though the accuracy of these trackers can vary quite a bit. But it’s just as easy to check your own pulse with your fingers. The best time to do it is first thing in the morning, before you’ve had coffee or even gotten out of bed. 

Place two fingers on the thumb side of your wrist between the bone and tendon, or on your neck at the side of your windpipe, until you can feel a pulse. Watch a clock with a minute hand, and count how many beats you feel over 15 seconds. Multiply that number by 4 to get your total beats per minute.

Your resting heart rate is influenced by many factors, including age, body size, air temperature, and emotions, as well as other health factors. You should check your heart rate a few different times over the week to get an average and find out what’s normal for you. Once you know what your average is, you’ll notice if there is an unexplained change that warrants attention.

If your resting heart rate is consistently over 100, this may indicate an underlying problem. Even a rate at the upper end of normal has been linked with higher heart health risks.5 You can bring your average resting heart rate down by exercising more and practicing stress management techniques, such as meditation, yoga, or tai chi.

Extra Credit: You can also check your recovery heart rate to see how smoothly your heart recovers from stress. After exercising, take your pulse, then check it again after one minute of rest. The average person’s heart rate will have dropped by about 12-23 points. If it’s on the upper end, that’s a sign of fitness and a healthy nervous system.

2. Check Your Blood Pressure

Your blood pressure is the force exerted on your arteries when your heart pumps blood. The more pressure is exerted on your blood vessels over time, the more you risk damaging your blood vessels and increasing your risk of serious heart health problems down the road.

Many things can cause high blood pressure, including some genetic factors and some lifestyle factors. These include:

  • Physical inactivity: When you are less active, your heart rate is higher, so your heart is working harder to pump blood and using more force.
  • Being overweight: When you are larger, it takes more blood to pump nutrients and oxygen throughout your body. More blood means more pressure.
  • Too much salt: Sodium increases fluid retention, which can increase blood pressure.
  • Smoking: Smoking not only raises blood pressure in the short term, but the chemicals in tobacco can damage artery walls, increasing blood pressure in the long term.
  • Stress: The stress response raises heart rate and blood pressure. If you are chronically in stress mode, these effects can add up over time.6

A blood pressure reading includes two numbers. The top number is your systolic blood pressure, or the pressure when your heart contracts. The bottom number is your diastolic blood pressure, or the pressure when your heart is between beats. A normal blood pressure reading should be less than 120 over less than 80. 

Anything higher than that is considered high blood pressure, or hypertension. According to the CDC, nearly half of all Americans will find themselves in this category at some point in their lifetime.7 But since high blood pressure has no noticeable symptoms, you won’t know it unless you test for it.

You can often test your blood pressure for free at your local drug store. But if you want to do it at home, you can buy your own blood pressure monitor. This allows you to control the timing and conditions of your blood pressure reading, and makes it easier to test multiple times to get an average.

Before taking your blood pressure, avoid caffeine, empty your bladder, and sit quietly for at least five minutes to bring your heart rate to its normal resting rate. Follow the instructions on your blood pressure monitor carefully.8 Repeat the process with both arms. Research shows that a 10 point difference or more between the arms may be a warning sign.9

Keep in mind that your blood pressure may change depending on your activity level, stress level, temperature, and other factors. One high blood pressure reading doesn’t necessarily mean you have hypertension. But if you test several times over a few days and your numbers are consistently high, you may want to have your doctor check you out.

You can bring your blood pressure down by cutting back on salt, saturated fats, and processed foods, getting more exercise, managing your stress levels, dropping a few pounds, drinking moderately, and quitting smoking. In some cases, your doctor may also recommend medication. 

3. Take the Stairs Test

This one is a little less scientific, but it is backed up by a scientific study.10 Researchers at the European Society of Cardiology found that stair climbing makes a simple and accessible exercise stress test for gauging cardiorespiratory fitness. 

In the study, a group of patients with symptoms of heart health issues were asked to quickly climb four flights of stairs while their time was recorded. These results were then compared with the results of a more traditional and extensive exercise test performed on a treadmill.

Climbing the stairs in under a minute was correlated with better exercise capacity scores from the treadmill test. By contrast, those who took longer than a minute and a half to climb the stairs had lower exercise capacity scores and were twice as likely to have shown abnormal heart function during the treadmill test.

Keep in mind that these patients already had symptoms of heart health issues, so if you have no symptoms, then taking the stairs test won’t tell you if you have abnormal heart function. But as a gauge for exercise capacity and general heart health, the stairs test is pretty accurate.

To test yourself, find a building with four flights of stairs and climb them as fast as you can, without running or stopping, while tracking your time. According to the researchers, if your time is under a minute, that’s a sign of a healthy heart. If it takes more than a minute and a half, you should probably get checked out by your doctor.

Prevention is always the best medicine. Fortunately, when it comes to your heart health, simple lifestyle changes can make a big difference. Once you know where your heart health stands, you'll be able make smarter choices to help your heart stay strong for years to come. 

References:

1. Heart Disease Facts.” CDC.gov.

2.  “Why Heart Disease is on the Rise in America.” Healthline, March 2017.

3.  “Heart Disease: Facts, Statistics, and You.” Healthline, July 2020.

4. “What Your Resting Heart Rate Can Tell You About Your Fitness.” Self, Dec. 2017.

5.  “High resting heart rate predicts heart risk in women at midlife.” health.harvard.edu

6. “High blood pressure (hypertension).” Mayo Clinic.org

7. “Facts about Hypertension.” CDC.gov

8.  “Checking Your Blood Pressure at Home.” WebMD.

9. “How Healthy is Your Heart? This Simple Test May Tell, Study Says.” Forbes, May 2014.

10. “Test Your Heart Health by Climbing Stairs.” Science Daily, Dec. 2020