A heartbeat is a two-part pumping action that takes about a second. As blood collects in the upper chambers (the right and left atria), the heart's natural pacemaker (the SA node) sends out an electrical signal that causes the atria to contract. This contraction pushes blood through the tricuspid and mitral valves into the resting lower chambers (the right and left ventricles). This part of the two-part pumping phase (the longer of the two) is called diastole.
The second part of the pumping phase begins when the ventricles are full of blood. The electrical signals from the SA node travel along a pathway of cells to the ventricles, causing them to contract. This is called systole. As the tricuspid and mitral valves shut tight to prevent a back flow of blood, the pulmonary and aortic valves are pushed open. While blood is pushed from the right ventricle into the lungs to pick up oxygen, oxygen-rich blood flows from the left ventricle to the heart and other parts of the body.
After blood moves into the pulmonary artery and the aorta, the ventricles relax, and the pulmonary and aortic valves close. The lower pressure in the ventricles causes the tricuspid and mitral valves to open, and the cycle begins again. This series of contractions is repeated over and over again, increasing during times of exertion and decreasing while you are at rest. The heart normally beats about 60 to 80 times a minute when you are at rest, but this can vary. As you get older, your resting heart rate rises. Also, it is usually lower in people who are physically fit.
Your heart does not work alone, though. Your brain tracks the conditions around you—climate, stress, and level of physical activity—and adjusts your cardiovascular system to meet those needs.
The human heart is a muscle designed to remain strong and reliable for a hundred years or longer. By reducing your risk factors for cardiovascular disease, you may help your heart stay healthy longer.
Updated August 2012