If you’re confused about the terms “heart rate” and “blood pressure,” you aren’t alone. While these important measurements often move in the same direction, they represent two very different things. The implications are especially important for people with hypertension (high blood pressure) to understand.
The Differences Between Heart Rate & Blood Pressure
The main difference between heart rate and blood pressure is that blood pressure represents the force of your blood moving through the blood vessels while heart rate (or pulse) measures the number of heartbeats per minute.
In most cases, your blood pressure doesn’t rise at the same pace as your heartbeat. Healthy blood vessels are able to dilate, allowing blood to maintain the optimal pace even as the heart speeds up. If your blood pressure spikes significantly with physical stress, or if it remains above the normal range, you likely have hypertension.
What Impacts Heart Rate?
Several factors can influence your heart rate, including:
- Exercise. When you push yourself physically, your heart has to pump more blood to vital organs. That’s why your heart races when you work out or go for a run.
- Your physical position. If you’re sitting, standing, or resting, you should typically remain close to your resting heart rate. When you first stand up, though, your pulse can temporarily increase.
- Your stress level. Anxiety and stress can raise your heart rate, as can most heightened emotions like extreme happiness, sadness, excitement, or frustration.
- Your medication. Beta-blockers are specifically designed to slow your heart rate as a way of controlling blood pressure. As a result, your pulse typically decreases with their use. Other medications, like thyroid medicines, can increase your pulse in some cases.
When we refer to elevated heart rate, we’re talking about anything above your normal resting heart rate. This number varies from person to person, but it usually falls somewhere between 60 and 100 beats per minute. Your resting heart rate indicates the speed at which your heart pumps the least amount of blood to keep you going. You’re not exercising, and you’re not in fight-or-flight mode. You’re just resting.
What Impacts Blood Pressure?
Although low blood pressure can lead to short-term issues like nausea and dizziness, high blood pressure is a more common and dangerous threat. While the causes of hypertension aren’t fully known, contributing causes include:
- Family history
- Excess salt in the diet
- Excess alcohol consumption
- Sedentary lifestyle
- Advanced age
- Sleep apnea
- Chronic kidney disease
Blood pressure readings are represented by two numbers: systolic over diastolic. So in a reading of 120/80 (the high-normal range), 120 represents the systolic reading and 80 represents the diastolic reading.
- Normal blood pressure is less than 120/80
- Elevated blood pressure is 120-129/less than 80
- Stage 1 high blood pressure is 130-139/80-89
- Stage 2 high blood pressure is 140 and above/90 and above
Any reading over 180/120 is characterized as a hypertension crisis and requires immediate clinical intervention.
When to See a Doctor About Your Blood Pressure or Heart Rate
You should always keep track of both your heart rate and blood pressure, noting any abnormalities that may require a doctor’s diagnosis.
If your blood pressure consistently remains at or above 120/80, speak to your doctor right away. You may have hypertension that can be managed with basic lifestyle changes or medication. Unmanaged hypertension is a leading contributor to ischemic heart disease and can ultimately lead to a heart attack or stroke.
If a doctor prescribes beta-blockers to treat your high blood pressure, note any abnormalities in your heart rate. If your pulse speeds up or slows down significantly, your doctor may need to change the dosage or recommend a different medication.
If you don’t have hypertension but you’re experiencing abnormal heart rate activity, you may also need to consult with a doctor. For example, if you have low blood pressure and a high pulse, you may be at a heightened risk for cardiac arrest. An electrical problem in the heart may be to blame, potentially leading to the types of arrhythmias that can cause the heart to stop.
How to Maintain a Healthy Pulse & BP
Elevated blood pressure and abnormal heart rate can serve as important warning signs. While you can’t manage every heart condition on your own, there are steps you can take to reduce your risk of a major cardiovascular event.
- First and foremost, speak to your doctor right away if you have high blood sugar or a consistently abnormal heart rate.
- Keep your weight under control, and make time to exercise at least 30 minutes per day.
- Avoid smoking, and keep your alcohol consumption to a minimum (average 1 drink per day for women and 2 drinks per day for men, per DHHS guidelines)
- Keep your salt intake at a minimum if you’re at a heightened risk for hypertension (ideally no more than 1,500 mg per day).
- Be mindful of your general nutrition, sticking to only small to moderate amounts of saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium, sugar, and red meat.
- Keep an automated external defibrillator (AED) in the home if you have heart disease, high pulse with low blood pressure, or other cardiac arrest risk factors. Having this device in an emergency could save your life. Thankfully, there are a number of great, easy-to-use AED devices you can buy.
- Be diligent about managing any existing or concurrent health conditions. Take your prescribed medications, and always follow your doctor’s orders.
Heart disease is the No. 1 killer of Americans. But by making your heart health a priority, you can go a long way toward avoiding the cardiovascular pitfalls that afflict millions. So listen to your body. Your heart rate and blood pressure may be trying to tell you something.