Still my beating heart
February 19, 2015 9:41 AM   Subscribe

I have a very fast heart rate while exercising: 160 or so at a brisk walk; 190 at a light jog; over 200 with more strenuous exercises. I am out of shape right now and have never been in athlete condition, but I have also never been sedentary (bike commuted 10 miles each day up until an injury last year, garden, walk my dog two miles a day, etc.), and my heart rate went just as high when I was in better shape.

In addition, my aerobic capacity never seemed to improve. I bike commuted for six years and it was just as hard on the last day as it was on the first.

I have low blood pressure (100/60ish) and asthma (treated with steroid inhaler daily). My resting heart rate is around 80. My heart rate returns to that fairly quickly after exercising. I have gotten similar readings from two different chest-strap monitors and a gym treadmill monitor.

1. If I see a doctor to discuss this, what specific tests should I ask for? I have not had good luck in the past going to doctors without having diagnostic tests or treatments to suggest.
2. Is exercising with intensity healthy for me? I don’t enjoy it; I only do it because exercise is supposed to be good for people.
3. If I should keep exercising, how might I increase either the intensity I can tolerate or my stamina? When I can begin biking again, I would love to find a way to make my commute less wearing.
posted by metasarah to Health & Fitness (11 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I am reminded of the saying, attributed to Greg Lemond, that with bicycling (or at least bicycle racing), "It never gets easier, you just go faster." I suspect that while your bike commute is just as hard for you now as it was 6 years ago, you are going faster and/or pushing bigger gears without realizing it. This may be especially true if your route has hills.

That said, I too, have a high resting and exercising heart rate, and very low aerobic capacity, from my time on my HS track team to my current, mostly sedentary life interrupted only by bike commuting and occasional hikes. So I will be reading this thread with interest.
posted by hhc5 at 9:49 AM on February 19, 2015

When you state "my heart rate went just as high when I was in better shape", this is common. You may have heard something along the lines of, "it never gets easier, you just get faster." Most people (which may or may not include you) maintain a relatively constant effort level as they improve their athletic ability; they just become more efficient about using that effort and improve their speed/endurance.

My heart rate returns to that fairly quickly after exercising.

Fairly recent research indicates that heart rate recovery time is a better indicator of health than heart rate itself is. In fact, some people go so far as to say that heart rate is basically a useless indicator of health. I generally subscribe to that, mostly because I'm the opposite of you - I have an absurdly low heart rate (~40-45 bpm resting, ~180 bpm maximum), but am not particularly athletic at all.

I am not answering question 1, because I do not like to give advice providing direction on how a doctor should treat you.

Is exercising with intensity healthy for me?

You should get familiar with heart rate zones for use in exercise. Estimating intensity by absolute heart rate is not particularly meaningful, since maximum heart rate varies by person to person. A better estimate is how exercise makes you feel (regardless of heart rate), and an even better estimate is an actually specified maximum heart rate so that you know what heart rate zone you're working in. That'll give you an idea of how you can use your heart rate to drive your exercise choices.

Also, you should define "healthy". Is it harmful to you? It's pretty darn hard to injure yourself from exercising too hard - most people (which may or may not include you) lose the will and ability to do strenuous exercise well before the point of injury; the body is generally most people's limiting factor. Is it beneficial for you? Almost definitely yes, given your fast heart rate recovery and no indication of health issues. Is it optimally beneficial for you? Maybe, maybe not - you might find that you will have an easier time exercising at a lower heart rate for longer. Conversely, you may find that you prefer to exercise at a very high heart rate for a short time.

If I should keep exercising, how might I increase either the intensity I can tolerate or my stamina?

If your goal is to make exercise feel better, you need to exercise in a way to keep your heart rate low. This is not bad, and it's actually a good way to improve your stamina. Cyclists often refer to "LSD" rides for "long steady distance". When doing that, they often deliberately keep their heart rate low - to the point of avoiding hills! - in order to improve their endurance.

When I bike commute, I have a tendency to ride as fast as I can all the time. This is problematic for me, as it means I'm overly tired when I get to work, and have a tendency to overeat at work. As a result, I actually wear a heart rate monitor when I bike commute to avoid over-exerting myself when going to work. I realize this is somewhat absurd, but it does result in me being able to consistently bike commute pretty much whenever I want without having to consider my stamina.
posted by saeculorum at 9:58 AM on February 19, 2015 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Clarification: My bike commute time remained the same over the years, as well as my subjective experience of it.
posted by metasarah at 10:46 AM on February 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

My heart rate gets quite high when I run too. I think I just have a higher max heart rate than average. My sister is the same way. I have definitely noticed increases in my endurance when I've kept up with regular aerobic exercise, though, even when I haven't noticed improvement in my running or cycling speed.

When you say you're exercising "with intensity" how out of breath are you? Can you speak short sentences or only single words or not at all?
posted by mskyle at 11:31 AM on February 19, 2015

Best answer: I had the same problem, and one thing I discovered last year, was that I was anemic. Once I got that worked out, it got a lot better -- my heart rate monitor yells at me a lot less.
posted by hrj at 12:02 PM on February 19, 2015 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: Exercising with intensity= I could say single words with difficulty.
posted by metasarah at 12:27 PM on February 19, 2015

Best answer: I have always been fit (marathons, triathlons, vigorous yoga practice) and have a very high heart rate--a bit higher than yours both resting and while exercising. I had it checked out about 20 years ago (when I was in my mid-20s) after a trainer at the gym saw my heart rate displayed on an exercise machine and told me to immediately stop moving! I had an echocardiogram, a treadmill stress test, and a Holter test, which all turned out fine. What my doctor finally said was that heart rate guidelines are based on averages and that I'm simply at the top of the range, "like a mouse."
posted by fiery.hogue at 1:07 PM on February 19, 2015

Best answer: If you talk to a doctor, they may have you do a "stress echocardiogram," which is an ultrasound of your heart while it's at its near maximum work. It is not a cheap test and It is the hardest workout ever, but you'll learn a lot.
posted by bensherman at 3:56 PM on February 19, 2015

Best answer: A stress echo is usually done to look for ischemic heart disease. If you are a young and otherwise healthy person with no known risk factors, this may not be necessary.

Tests to do with heart rate and rhythm include Holter monitor and event monitor. I'm leery of suggesting you 'request' any test like these though, because sometimes patient requests can result in excessive testing (which is not benign either for your body or your pocketbook).
posted by treehorn+bunny at 6:11 PM on February 19, 2015

Best answer: I've just been to the cardiologist for the same problem. My resting heart rate is around 105bpm, walking is 150, anything more than that 180+. I had an echo and a halter done and am now on beta blockers. I was diagnosed with Inappropriate Sinus Tachycardia, which sounds similar to what you're experiencing.
If I were you I'd go to the docs to get it checked out, only because a very high heart rate like this might not kill you right away, but over time can cause structural damage and other problems.
posted by everydayanewday at 10:52 PM on February 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: My roommate also had a higher than normal heartbeat, and is in excellent shape. The doctor diagnosed her with hypothyroidism, and once she started taking meds to control that, her heartbeat slowed down to the normal ranges. You may want to ask your doc to test your thyroid? It's just a blood draw, and last time I had mine checked it wasn't expensive.
posted by csox at 6:25 AM on February 20, 2015

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