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  • Writer's pictureJackie

Exercise Heart Rate Know-How

How to determine the rate that best fits YOU

Oh, my beating heart! No, literally, yours too. One of the most obvious & beneficial aspects of exercise is that, whew, heart rate can really ramp up. In exercise classes, I often hear, “What should my heart rate be?” The answer should include a quick number, or at least a formula to determine a number, right? In fact, back in the day, we instructors & trainers used to rattle off an equation just for this purpose and heart rate charts hung in every aerobics studio. (We’ll touch on this in a bit.) In reality, the more useful answer turns out to be more nuanced.

First, a couple of basics: Heart rate is simply the number of times your heart is beating per minute (bpm). If you’ve worked out for years, you’ve surely heard the term target heart rate. This basically means the bpm that’s appropriate for the workout & that’s ideal for achieving the benefits you’re seeking. (Target heart rate RANGE is just the series of rates that you might aim for between a low and a high point.)

Now for the tricky thing: No single target heart rate fits everyone’s workout or even every type of workout. A few important factors drive exercise heart rate, your ability to reach that target, AND whether or not you should actually be trying to. Here are a few questions to ask yourself before you start calculating exercise heart rate:

What’s my goal?

Aim for a heart rate that matches your intended result. The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans call for 150 minutes of exercise at a MODERATE intensity. This effort has been researched in connection with many health benefits such as lower risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes and much more. High intensity interval training (Hiit) involves cycling heart rate from lower than moderate to peak intensity. While shown to be beneficial to the average exerciser, HIIT serves as a staple technique for athletes working to improve sprint performance.

What’s my health history?

First things first, ALWAYS consult your physician before (re)starting an exercise program. Ask for any personal recommendations regarding YOUR heart rate. Personal tracking devices and heart rate sensors on cardio machines will determine “appropriate” heart rates, but obviously this technology does not know your specific health history.

How long have I been exercising?

While many folks see fitness as a body type, exercise heart rate and resting heart rate are really better, more accurate indicators of fitness. The longer you’ve been exercising, the more efficient your heart becomes at blood circulation. At rest, over time, heart rate tends to drift downward. During exercise, as months go by, you have to work longer (or at a higher intensity) to reach a heart rate that felt “moderate” in the early days of working out. In theory, you’ll be able to breathe & speak through higher heart rates the more fit you are.

What’s my age?

Many things that we believe change with age actually don’t, but our cardiovascular system’s ability to process oxygen efficiently DOES drop with age. As someone who’s exercised consistently since age 16 and has tracked heart rate for approximately 15 years, I have observed (and come to accept) this reality myself. Where once I may have peaked in the 180 bpm range, the mid 160s now turns out to be my high end. And that’s perfectly natural.

What’s my gender?

In general, women’s heart rates tend to be higher than men’s. As the Cleveland Clinic explains, “Women’s hearts must beat faster to pump the same amount of blood because their hearts are usually slightly smaller than men’s.” Hormones also affect female heart rate. Research published by the American College of Cardiology shows that “younger men have a lower resting heart rate and higher peak heart rate than women and that men’s heart rates rise more dramatically during exercise and return to normal more quickly after stopping.”

Yes, You Can Employ a Formula

Having said all this, you’re surely asking, “So, what IS the number I’m seeking??” By far, the easiest & most common formula you can use is to take 220 and subtract your age. This is NOT the number to aim for during an entire workout. In fact, you wouldn’t be able to do so, as this number estimates your “maximum heart rate.” In general, if you’re doing a steady state workout such as walking, jogging or chugging away on an elliptical, the CDC recommends that you aim for 64-76 percent of your max heart rate. HIIT, on the other hand, would include short bouts (usually 20 seconds) of attempting to maintain 80-95% of max heart rate coupled with recovery bouts to allow heart rate to come down to moderate or sub-moderate levels.

It’s important to note that research has long shown that this formula does not exactly fit everyone (probably why those charts in gyms have become less commonplace). According to that study published by the ACC, “Women in the age range of 40 to 89 years should expect their maximum heart rate to be 200 minus 67 percent of their age. In men, the formula is 216 minus 93 percent of their age. For women younger than 40, the relationship of heart rate to age may be different, as an insufficient number of tests on women younger than 40 were available to provide reliable results.”

One way to determine your range more accurately involves incorporating a personal stat: YOUR resting heart rate (RHR). In this case, you’d employ what’s known in the biz as the Karvonen formula, which was explained in detail in 2013 by the American Council on Exercise here, and which you can calculate using this site. My numbers exemplify the large shift in target heart rate that can occur. My resting heart rate is 56 bpm. Using 220-age, if I wanted to work out at a 70% effort, I’d aim for 115 bpm. But per the Karvonen formula, which factors in RHR, I should actually aim for about 132 bpm to reach 70%.

How can you calculate your RHR? Fitness trackers (aka Fitbits) tend to track your resting heart rate well. If you don’t have that luxury, you can calculate your resting HR by taking your pulse (wrist of neck) for one minute in bed before you rise; do so for about a week & take the average the readings.

Finally, Here’s a More Intuitive & Excellent Approach

While I do regularly check my HR monitor during workouts, especially intense ones, I agree with many professionals that the “talk test” works best of all. NASM defines this well, saying that, if you can chat easily, then you're working at low intensity. If you can talk but your breathing is really audible and it's an effort to hold a conversation, then you're exercising at moderate intensity (such as when running or swimming laps). And at high intensity, you can only get a word or two out between gasps of air and the activity is difficult to sustain (such as during sprints or HIIT).

Using the “talk test” during workouts means that your heart rate will directly connect with your intensity goal rather than to a number that may or may not actually serve your needs. It requires some mindfulness (which is not such a bad thing in itself) to connect with your ability to speak and to how intense your effort feels, but with time, you'll fine tune this skill. This way, your heart rate monitor becomes YOU!

So, keep going strong as you lock in your desired intensity, and celebrate that beautifully beating heart!


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