top of page


By Pamela Bundy, CPT

There is a lot of talk about heart rate and exercise, much of it conflicting, so how do you know how to track your heart rate to get maximum benefits? Well, it depends on different factors such as your goal, age, medication you may be taking, and your mental state of mind.

Basically, it comes down to this - If your heart’s pounding out of your chest, it’s too hard. If you can’t tell it’s elevated, that’s too easy. That may seem basic, but don’t need to spend hundreds of dollars to make sure you are exercising properly, you only need to tune in to your body. While it’s great that technology can help, only elite athletes need to focus on specific numbers.

But I know there are those of you who absolutely need numbers, so here’s something for you. There are different ways to determine your optimal heart rate, such as the Karvonen method using heart rate reserve, but to keep it easy we will just focus on your heat rate.

First, you need to calculate your maximum heart rate by subtracting your age from 220 to get your maximum heart rate. Then you need to decide at what intensity you want to exercise.

· Light intensity: 60%-70% of your maximum heart rate

· Moderate intensity: 70%-80% of your maximum heart rate

· High intensity: 80%-90% of your maximum heart rate

From there you can multiply your heart rate by the percentage of intensity you are looking for and voila! You have your number.

The next question is what at what intensity should you be exercising? This question is frequently argued with no clear winners because every argument has a point. Staying in the lower zones, or the fat burning zone, does require your body to use stored fat as its energy source. Well, that sounds good. But exercising at higher intensities does burn more calories. That sounds good too. By picking up the pace you will burn more calories overall, and if you’re trying to lose weight isn’t that the goal? Here’s a chart that explains it more:

Low Intensity High Intensity

(60&-70% MHR) (80%-85% MHR)

Total calories burned by minute 4.86 6.86

Fat calories burned per minute 2.43 2.7

Total calories burned in 30 minutes 146 206

Total fat calories burned in 30 minutes 73 82

Percentage of fat calories burned 50% 39.85%**

Where low intensity can be helpful is on your rest days, what I like to call active rest. Walking at a lower intensity gives the body time to regenerate so you can pick up your pace other days. I suggest two low intensity days and five moderate-higher intensity or interval training days. If you are a woman “of a certain age,” then it changes everything, but that’s an article for another time.

Target Heart Rate Tips

It's important to note that maximum heart rate is only a guide. You may have a higher or lower maximum heart rate at any given time, sometimes by as much as 15 to 20 beats per minute. If you want a more specific range, consider discussing your target heart rate zone with an exercise physiologist or a personal trainer. Generally, only elite athletes are concerned about this level of precision.

Also note that several types of medications, such as beta blockers, lower your heart rate. Ask your doctor if you need to use a lower or higher target heart rate zone because of your medications or medical conditions.

For those who don’t want to deal with the numbers, here’s a guide for you:

· Low Intensity – Easy to breathe and you can have a long conversation

· Moderate Intensity – You begin to breathe heavily but can hold a short conversation

· High Intensity - On the verge of becoming uncomfortable where you can only speak one sentence to being difficult and only being able to speak one word.

This simplified rate of perceived exertion will be different for type-A personalities than it will be for people who are laid back or those who tend to be worriers, and that’s ok. As long as you are exercising, you will get more cardiovascularly fit and be able to handle higher levels of intensity. And how can you tell?

Calculate your resting heart rate by counting how many times your heart beats per minute when you are at rest, such as first thing in the morning. It's usually somewhere between 60 and 100 beats per minute for the average adult. As you become more fit your resting heart rate will go down.

Reap the Rewards of Exercise Intensity

To get maximum effect for weight loss, you should be focusing on interval training, which includes short bouts of higher intensity exercise alternated with longer, less strenuous exercise throughout your workout. No, you don’t need to go all out and do burpees (though those are amazing at getting you fit). Start by picking up the pace for 30-60 seconds during a walk then go at your normal pace for 2-3 minutes. As you get in better cardiovascular shape and the pounds come off, you can narrow that time ratio by alternating 60 seconds of hard effort with 60 seconds at regular effort.

Now, for those of us who have a few years on them, and this does suck, the older you are the more exercise you need to prevent weight gain or to lose weight. It’s just something we need to accept and deal with. Try cutting back a few calories and adding a bit more exercise and intensity. Weight training will also be a huge boost to your metabolism, not to mention good for the bones.

But at the end of the day, try not to get stuck on the numbers (unless they motivate you like they do me). Just get out and move and feel better.

15 views0 comments


bottom of page