A healthy adult has a resting heart rate (pulse) of 60 to 80 beats per minute, which is the rate of depolariza-tion of the SA node. (The SA node actually has a slightly faster rate, closer to 100 beats per minute, but is slowed by parasympathetic nerve impulses to what we consider a normal resting rate.) A rate less than 60 (except for athletes) is called bradycardia; a prolonged or consistent rate greater than 100 beats per minute is called tachycardia.
A child’s normal heart rate may be as high as 100 beats per minute, that of an infant as high as 120, and that of a near-term fetus as high as 140 beats per minute. These higher rates are not related to age, but rather to size: the smaller the individual, the higher the metabolic rate and the faster the heart rate. Parallels may be found among animals of different sizes; the heart rate of a mouse is about 200 beats per minute and that of an elephant about 30 beats per minute.
Let us return to the adult heart rate and consider the person who is in excellent physical condition. As you may know, well-conditioned athletes have low resting pulse rates. Those of basketball players are often around 50 beats per minute, and the pulse of a marathon runner often ranges from 35 to 40 beats per minute. To understand why this is so, remember that the heart is a muscle. When our skeletal muscles are exercised, they become stronger and more efficient. The same is true for the heart; consistent exercise makes it a more efficient pump, as you will see in the next section.
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