There's an easy, universal way to measure your fitness and heart health: It's simply by measuring your resting heart rate. Doctors agree that this one number is a good indicator of your physical fitness and overall health. Measuring your resting heart rate (RHR) (essentially how many beats a minute your ticker requires to move blood through the body while at rest) is a simple and effective way to determine how your heart muscle functions. And you can feel good about all your hard cardio workouts as you see your RHR go down over time. But there are also foods you can eat to lower your RHR and most people don't realize that along with exercise, diet works to help bring your RHR down as you age.

A lower RHR is associated with greater physical fitness, improved cardiovascular health, and protection against heart attacks, researchers found in a recent study. Conversely, a higher RHR may be a sign of heart disease, elevated blood pressure, or increased risk of stroke. So if you’re looking to lower your RHR naturally, here’s some good news: Eating a whole-food, plant-based diet—combined with regular exercise—is a powerful strategy for boosting heart health and achieving a lower RHR.

We spoke with nutrition experts who gave insights and their top food recommendations to reduce your RHR and improve the health of one of your most essential organs.

What is Resting Heart Rate?

RHR is the rate at which your heart beats at rest (such as first thing in the morning before you get out of bed, or while lying watching golf on the couch). It is a measure of the heart pumping the least amount of blood required by the body when not exercising, eating or standing upright.

What is a Healthy Resting Heart Rate?

The average RHR is between 60 and 100 beats per minute (BPM), according to the American Heart Association (AHA).

However, RHR increases gradually with age and is typically lower for people who engage in strenuous fitness activity and live healthy lifestyles. The AHA notes that active people may have an RHR as low as 40 BPM (such as college athletes) because their heart is strong and efficient, so it doesn’t need to pump as often as a weaker heart does to pump volumes of blood through the organs and extremities.

Curious about how to measure your RHR? Dr. Mahmud Kara, MD, says, “You can measure your RHR by placing two fingers over a spot with a pulse (e.g., your wrist or neck on either side of your windpipe) and count the number of beats in 60 seconds.” Alternatively, you can count the beats for 15 seconds and multiply that by four.

Why is Having a Low Resting Heart Rate Good?

“A lower RHR can indicate good cardiovascular health and is associated with longevity and reduced chronic disease,” explains Dr. Kara. However, he adds, “while various factors can influence RHR — including medications, body position, stress, and vascular structure — it’s still important to consider RHR alongside other factors such as your blood pressure and your cholesterol levels when evaluating your cardiovascular wellness.”

In a 16-year-long study, published in the British Medical Journal's Heart, people with higher RHRs also had a higher risk of mortality, since it is often an indicator of higher blood pressure, excess body fat, elevated cholesterol, and other risk factors for cardiovascular issues, such as heart attack or stroke.

“The evidence suggests that eating a healthy, balanced diet – along with routine exercise – contributes to a lower RHR,” says Emily Clairmont, MS, RD, a registered dietitian with the University of Vermont. “To lower your RHR, I recommend eating balanced meals high in vegetables and plant-based protein, low in saturated fat, and eliminating trans-fats, refined carbohydrates, added sugar, alcohol, and caffeine.”

For a holistic approach to improving heart health and function, combine daily cardiovascular exercise with a steady diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds. This strategy has been shown to improve your heart health and promote longevity, boost energy, enhance overall health – and lower your RHR.

5 Foods to Help Lower Your Resting Heart Rate

1. Leafy green vegetables

Leafy green vegetables, such as spinach and kale, contain essential vitamins and minerals (like vitamin K), which research has linked to a decreased risk of cardiovascular disease. The study noted leafy green vegetables improve key cardiovascular indicators, including cholesterol and blood pressure. Additionally, leafy green vegetables are high in magnesium and potassium, which are associated with reduced blood pressure and lower heart rate.
(Try this Roasted Chickpea and Kale Salad for some RHR-lowering nutrition.)

2. Omega-3 fatty acids

Omega-3 fatty acids are considered “healthy” fats with many benefits for heart health. Excellent dietary sources of omega-3s include chia seeds, hemp seeds, flaxseed, walnuts, and brussels sprouts. A study published in Frontiers in Physiology linked these foods to reduced blood pressure and less plaque build-up, which can strain the heart and elevate RHR.

3. Whole grains

Whole grains work indirectly to lower RHR by helping you feel fuller longer, which over time promotes weight loss and eases the strain on the heart. Research demonstrates that carrying around extra weight strains the heart by requiring it to work harder than usual to pump blood, which may increase your RHR. Therefore, consuming high-fiber foods like whole grains is essential for cardiovascular wellness. Heart-healthy whole grains include brown rice, oats, quinoa, buckwheat, barley, bulgar, and millet.

4. Red wine (Resveratrol)

Red wine and resveratrol — a plant compound that acts as an antioxidant and is commonly found in red wine, grapes, and berries — have been linked to lower cholesterol, reduced blood pressure, and improved cardiovascular health, according to a 2019 study published in The International Journal of Molecular Sciences. The antioxidative properties of red wine and resveratrol are essential for fending off oxidative stress at the cellular level. If left unchecked, oxidative stress can place excess strain on the heart and interfere with the heart’s normal processes — which may lead to issues with RHR over time.

5. Olive oil

Olive oil is a heart-healthy fat high in antioxidant value and a great alternative to other oil choices, such as butter, that can increase cholesterol levels and put unnecessary strain on the heart,” says Dr. Kara. In addition, research reveals that olive oil — compared to vegetable oils, especially in cooking — is linked to reduced risk for cardiovascular disease.

Bottom Line: You Can Lower Your RHR with Daily Exercise and Healthy Diet

Your resting heart rate is a good indicator of overall fitness. To lower yours, combine regular cardio exercise with a plant-based diet low in saturated fat and high in antioxidant-rich fruits, vegetables, leafy greens, legumes, whole grains, nuts, and seeds.

For more expert advice, check out The Beet's Health & Nutrition articles. 

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