The heart rate challenge

The rise of certain numbers, like your age or your weight, might make you cringe. Also on that list should be your resting heart rate (RHR).

Here’s why: “If you think about the heart as a mechanical pump, the harder it works, the faster it could break down,” explains Matt Delaney, national manager of innovation at Equinox. “Giving it time to rest is a prerequisite for optimal function.”

At the end of 2018, Delaney noticed via his Apple Watch that his RHR was holding steady at 55 beats per minute (bpm). While anything within the 40 to 60 range is typical for the healthy and fit, this number was “alarmingly high” for Delaney, whose RHR is usually in the low-40s. “Seeing this rise forced me to look at the lifestyle considerations that were driving it up,” he says.

Your heart’s main job is to pump blood through your body, so the goal is to make each beat efficient. After you drink caffeine or alcohol, as you digest, or while you walk up a flight of stairs, your RHR will naturally spike. But a lasting rise is usually a sign that you’re skimping on recovery or adopting bad habits, says Matt Berenc, director of education at the Equinox Fitness Training Institute.

Thankfully, your heart responds quickly to positive changes that make it more efficient and less stressed. Delaney implemented three basic behavioral tweaks related to alcohol intake, cardio, and time-restricted eating to bring his RHR back to normal. After one month, his number dropped to 43 bpm.

Because RHR is such a strong marker for health, Furthermore challenges you to bring your number down. To do it, check the heart rate data on your smartwatch, tracker, or strap at the same time every day for one week to find out your average. Do this when you’re at rest, like right when you wake up or when you’re at your desk. Then implement one or two of the below changes and check in with us @furthermore after one month to update us on your progress.

The challenge: 

Go dry Monday through Thursday, or any other consecutive four-day period each week, which is enough to have a positive effect. The amount of alcohol that triggers a rise in RHR will vary depending on weight, lean body mass, alcohol metabolism, and other factors. But when Delaney looked through his RHR and heart rate variability (HRV) data, he found that anything more than one drink had a negative impact.

Why it works: HRV is a measure of the variation between heartbeats and can be used to track central nervous system recovery, a sign of how well you recover post-workout, Delaney explains. Alcohol can compromise your recovery, leading to a lower HRV and an increased RHR.

The challenge: 

Focus on your breath for one minute, five times per day. Delaney does this when he wakes up, the moment he gets to his desk, just before bed, and anytime stress arises. Try the 4-7-8 technique, diaphragmatic breaths, and lengthening your exhale.

Why it works: “Deep breathing pulls your body out of a stressed state and puts it in parasympathetic mode, which has a positive effect on resting heart rate,” Berenc says. This is especially important for people with busy schedules or those in high-powered jobs who may feel pressure regularly throughout the day.

The challenge:

Train your heart—better. How exactly you do this depends on your current workout regimen: If your routine is strength-focused, add 30 minutes of cardio three to five times per week, like Delaney did. Even if cardio is already your go-to workout, make sure to log both steady-state and interval sessions to make your heart more adaptable.

Why it works: “You need the heart to have flexibility so the chambers can fill with blood,” Delaney says. Cardio like running, cycling, boxing, and jumping rope promotes elasticity of the heart tissue so the organ can beat more efficiently.

The challenge: 

If you prioritize cardio, add one or two 30- to 45-minute strength sessions to your routine each week. Use heavier loads that bring you to failure in 6 to 8 reps.

Why it works: While cardio makes the heart more elastic, strength training can lead to left ventricle hypertrophy. This allows the heart to squeeze harder and pump more blood with fewer beats. You need both types of training to help your heart operate at its best.

The challenge: 

Combat dehydration by drinking water every time you sit down or stand up, Delaney says. To optimize every sip, add salt to your glass.

Why it works: About 54 percent of your blood is made of plasma, which is 92 percent water. That means around half of your blood volume comes from H2O. When you’re dehydrated, your blood volume drops and your heart has to pump more to circulate the same amount of blood, Delaney says.

The challenge: 

Eat within a 12-hour (or shorter) window. Delaney chose between 10 a.m. and 7 p.m., but you can pick any period that works for you.

Why it works: Digestion is regulated by your circadian rhythm in similar ways that sleep is. “Eating outside of a 12-hour window throughout the day doesn’t give your digestive system time to recover from its actions that day,” he explains. “Plus, digestion takes effort from the body. If you go to bed with a full stomach, your body can’t tap into a restful state because it still has to work to break down the food.” In other words, time-restricted eating helps you sleep better, which can lower your heart rate.