Target Heart Rate Wrap-up

We’ve learned how to calculate target heart rate (THR), why it’s important to pay attention to it for fitness, and how to monitor it. So now what?

Use one of the formulas given earlier to calculate your THR. Better yet, calculate it more than one way, and see which range gives you the workout you need. Then try it out – you may need to make some adjustments for yourself, if the range seems too easy or too hard, or just tires you out. Tailor your heart rate to your exercise goals, whether it’s improved fitness, weight loss, or maintaining your current state. Think about using interval training (more on this later) to avoid workout boredom and overtraining.

Figure out what works best for you for monitoring your heart rate – whether you count it yourself, or use a monitor. Keep a log, at least at first, of your workout and the heart rate levels you achieve, to help you see if you’re reaching your goals.

If you do different types of workouts, you will probably see that your heart rate varies depending on your activity. For instance you’ll achieve different levels of intensity from walking, jogging, biking and swimming. Further, walking on a treadmill or biking on a stationary bike/trainer may turn out to be less intense for you than running or biking outside, where there are more variables, and less boredom. If you’re running or biking with a group or in a competition, you’ll likely see further variation in your intensity. You’ll probably need to adjust your THR goals to meet these variations.

Good luck with your workout and post your comments on what is working for you. Remember, turns out THR IS important!


Target Heart Rate Diaries, Part 4: Intervals

Well, I’m still plugging away at finding THR nirvana. I’ve made a couple of discoveries in my THR experiment. Since the weather has improved I’ve been able to get outside on my bike for a few rides. My typical ride is 23 miles, mostly rolling hills. (I know you’re thinking, why 23? Why not 20 or 25?) Anyway, I can get my heart rate up with no trouble on the hills, to the top of my zone and sometimes above, then return to the lower to mid zone in between the hills. What this boils down to is automatically turning my ride into interval training. Interval training is alternating short bursts of higher activity with more moderate activity throughout your workout. Depending on the length of time you spend in the higher intensity part of the workout, you can focus towards improving endurance and/or burning more calories. It was effortless to turn my outside bike ride into interval training, because the change in terrain plus the length of the ride basically did the work for me. Back inside, on the trainer or treadmill you can still do intervals, but you have to put a little more thought into it. If you’re on an exercise machine that offers programs, you can choose an interval program that will vary the intensity automatically. Or you can manually alternate your intensity by increasing and decreasing your speed and resistance throughout the workout and accomplish the same thing. On my trainer, that means I’m setting a timer to work harder for several minutes, then easier for a few minutes, and so on. I’m still using my heart rate monitor, and seeing that I end up averaging in the 70%ish zone, which may turn out to be just right. I’m going to try intervals for a while to see how it goes. Meanwhile I’ll start slogging through the huge volume of info available on interval training to bring you more details in a future post. Stay tuned.

Target Heart Rate Diaries: Part 3

My THR challenge has begun.  It’s  still winter, so I have my bike set up on the trainer in the basement. It’s much harder to get a good work out indoors on the trainer vis-a-vis out there on  the road. Unlike being on the road, you’re already home, so you don’t have to bike hard to get there. There’s no hills, no speed or mile goals to meet. You have to just do it. I’m trying to bike between 30-60 minutes and keep my heart rate between 130-146 for most of that time. At first it’s hard. I discover that I have to work much harder than what I have been doing. I thought I was getting a good work out before, but compared to what I’m doing now, that was nothing. After a few tries, I manage to get my heart rate in the zone for most of the workout. It’s hard to keep it there. This is serious business. When I’m done I’m very sweaty and feel like I’ve had a very hard work-out. This feels much harder than the 70-80% that it’s supposed to be.

Fast-forward three weeks. I’ve been working out in my THR zone 4-6 days per week. I’ve been having hard-working, heart-pumping work outs, harder than I’ve ever done before. I’ve even lost a couple of pounds, something that had been eluding me for months. And I’m exhilarated? Rejuvenated? Revitalized? No, I’m exhausted. By the fourth week, I can’t do it any more. I can  no longer maintain my heart rate in the zone. My weight loss sizzled, no further improvement. What happened? This is supposed to me making me more fit.

I decide to dial down the work out. I drop down to an easier pace, keeping my heart rate in the 50-60% zone. But this is no good – it’s not much better than what I was doing before: I’m not getting more fit, not losing weight, and not making progress. Apparently this THR stuff requires some knowledge and expertise that I lack, and have not been able to find despite reading extensively on the subject. Everything I’ve found gives the same guidelines for training in the THR zone. I need to find some answers.

Target Heart Rate Diaries: Part Two

So I’ve taken the plunge. I’ve got the heart rate monitor and have it all ready to go. This will be the answer to improving my cardiovascular fitness. All I have to do is plug my target heart rate zone into the monitor, slap it on and stay within my zone while I exercise. Simple. Or not.

I’ve figured out my THR a couple different ways, using some of the methods from the web sites I’ve cited earlier. Using the basic age calculation plus fitness level, I get a range of 98 to 131.

This seems a little low, so I try another way. I found another calculator that uses age, plus fitness level, plus adjusts the baseline number for females, and I get 109 to 146.

This still seem a little low on the low end, but the higher end sounds better.

Then I try the Karvonen formula and get a range of 130-147.   Hmm. Now the bottom of the range seems too high.

Then I find a mystery web site (which I’ve not been able to find since) that calculates by some unknown method, and gives me a range of 126-152. The plot thickens.

Then, I let my HRM calculate the range for me using what it calls the OwnZone feature, and get a number of 119-139.

So, which one should I use. I decide that I’m pretty fit, so I throw out the numbers under 110. I decide I’ll try working in a range of 130-145, which according to the Karvonen formula and the mystery web site, should put me in the 60-70% of my THR range.

I’ll let you know how it went.

Target Heart Rate Diaries:Part 1

I’ve been a moderate exerciser for years. At least I think I’m a moderate exerciser. I don’t really know because I never check my heart rate when exercising. I thought that was for fanatics, people training for elite events like marathons, and men. Probably because the only people I knew who monitored their heart rate were at least two out of three of the above. At first I was a walker – I’d walk anywhere from 30-60 minutes, three to four days a week, on a treadmill, at a fairly slow pace of an 18-20 minute mile. I’d vary the workout with some incline on the treadmill to try to get more exercise. This was pretty easy exercise for me. I could carry on a conversation and had no trouble keeping this pace for an hour or more. Trouble was, this exercise was maintaining my current level of unfitness and weight, but not improving anything. I thought I was pretty fit from all that walking, until I switched to biking. At first I used a stationary bike at my gym. It had a program that randomly varied the intensity of the workout. I was amazed at how hard this exercise was for me – I could barely keep up on the simplest program and had to stop and rest frequently. Then I started biking outside on my Huffy. I struggled to keep my speed at 10 mph, which for average bikers, is pretty slow. If I biked a moderate hill, I had to stop at the top and recover. How could I be so unfit after all that walking I had done for years? I blamed my bike which was heavy, had wide tires not meant for speed, and was not quite the right fit for me.

I kept plugging away at my biking and began to improve. By the end of the first summer, I had improved my speed, and could take moderate hills without stopping to rest, but was still a pretty slow biker. The following spring I got a new bike that was a better fit, had thin road tires, and was 15 pounds lighter than the Huffy. That helped, but still not the answer. By the end of that summer, after biking 1,100 miles, I had improved a little in speed and endurance but was still not where I ought to be. I was still pretty slow and could not keep up with average bikers. When I rode with friends they would graciously slow to my pace, but I was working hard and they were hardly working. Why was I still fairly unfit after all that riding?

So one day this past winter I was talking to my very fit husband about why I wasn’t getting more fit, and he casually mentioned “…and of course you’re checking your heart rate…” Wait – what? I never check my heart rate. He should know that – we bike together all the time. When we get ready to bike I’m always waiting for him while he’s putting on his heart rate monitor. I’m checking my email, checking my messages, checking everything except my heart rate. Why should I do that – that’s for, well, you know.

Well, my irrational and sexist thinking regarding heart rate finally came back to bite me. That same week two others (one of them a woman) made unsolicited comments to me about “…of course you’re checking your heart rate..” so I decided it was a sign. Time to start caring about my target heart rate and see if it really could be the answer to my lack of exercise progress.

Target Heart Rate Part III: How to Monitor

Once you’ve decided to care about your target heart rate (THR) while exercising, the next step is to decide how to monitor it. There are two ways – low-tech (count your heart rate yourself), or high-tech (use a heart rate monitor.) We’ll take a look at the pros and cons of both methods.

Low-tech: The easiest way to count your pulse during exercise is either on the neck (carotid) or the inside of the wrist. To find your carotid pulse, gently place two-three fingers (don’t use your thumb) on the windpipe (trachea) at the center of your neck. Slide your fingers over either way until you find a depressed ridge – this is where the carotid artery lies. You should be able to feel the pulse fairly easily, without putting a lot of pressure on the artery. To find your pulse on your wrist, place two-three fingers on the inside of your wrist on the same side as your thumb – just above the bend in the wrist. Either spot will work, but most folks seem to find the carotid artery easier to use during exercise.

Pulse is measured in beats per minute (bpm). You can count your pulse for six seconds and multiply by ten, or 15 seconds and multiply by four, or 30 seconds and multiply by two. The idea is to get the most accurate count possible with the least interruption to your exercise. If you take a group exercise class where the leader stops the class for participants to check their heart rate, typically they will count for 10 seconds. Personally I feel that a 30 second count gives the most accurate result, but may be difficult to do for that long, especially if you’re running, swimming or biking.

To monitor your THR during exercise, you can count it one-four times or more during your exercise session. For example, if you’re running for 60 minutes, check your heart rate after you’ve warmed up and been exercising for 10-20 minutes, again when you’ve reached the mid-point of your exercise, again about 10 minutes from the end of your exercise time, and again after you’ve cooled down. Many people abbreviate this to once near the end of the session and at cool down. How frequently you check your heart rate during exercise will depend on how serious you are about staying in your THR zone. If you want to exercise vigorously enough to stay in the zone for the majority of your exercise, waiting to check it until you’re almost done makes this a moot point. Knowing how frequently to check your heart rate is definitely a process of trial and error.

The pros of self-monitoring? It’s fairly easy to do. Cost is minimal – you need a watch or clock with a second hand, and the ability to do basic math. The cons? Some find it inconvenient to stop or slow their exercise to monitor heart rate. Frequent monitoring causes more interruption to exercise; infrequent monitoring may give an inaccurate picture of how hard you’re working. If you’re working too hard, or not hard enough during exercise, this may be missed if you’re only checking heart rate once during exercise.

Who should opt for self-monitoring? It’s great if you’re completely happy with your weight and fitness level and don’t plan to change or improve anything. If you’re very comfortable with gauging your exercise intensity by how you feel combined with intermittent pulse checks, then self-monitoring may work great for you. 

High tech: There’s a wide variety of heart rate monitors available. Most consist of a strap that goes around the chest under your clothing, and a watch. You can spend anywhere from $60 to $300ish, depending on how many features you want in addition to heart rate monitoring. For basic exercise, most people don’t need a lot of extra features – you want to choose a monitor that gives you a continuous measure of your heart rate, allows you to set upper and lower limits for heart rate (your THR zone) and gives you feedback during exercise if you’re above or below you’re zone. To get a basic monitor with these features, expect to pay between $100-$150. Most people will get at least 10 years of use with a good monitor and basic intermittent service, which makes the investment worth it. I’ll talk more about choosing a heart rate monitor in the future, but for those who can’t wait, there’s plenty of information available online.

Who should opt for high-tech monitoring? Those who fall into any of the following categories may want to consider investing in a monitor:

-If you’ve been exercising a while without getting the results you want, either in overall fitness or endurance

-If you’re trying to lose weight and are not making progress

-If you’re in training for a particular goal above your current level of fitness, such as a marathon or triathlon

-If you want to track tangible results of improvement in your fitness over time

-If you need feedback during exercise to help you maintain your intensity

-If you enjoy gadgets and don’t mind spending a few minutes before and after exercise to care for your monitor (minimal)

-If you find it too cumbersome to count your heart rate during exercise

-If you’re unable to tell on your own if you’re exercising too hard or not hard enough, or if you have any physical conditions that make it dangerous for you too exercise too hard

-If you can afford the initial cost, plus occasional periodic maintenance costs

-If you are committed enough to use the monitor and not let it sit in the drawer

Next: how to choose a heart rate monitor.

Target Heart Rate Part II: How to Calculate

Once you have determined your resting heart rate (RHR) (see part I) you can use it to calculate your target heart rate (THR) range. Here are three popular methods. Each will produce a workable starting target heart rate range, with a little variation.

1. Use a THR calculator. This is by far the quickest and easiest way. Click on one of the links below. Enter your age, click calculate and in seconds your THR range will appear. The first link uses only your age to make the calculation. The second one takes your fitness level into account, and probably produces a more accurate result.

2. Use a standard formula. Warning – this method involves math. You’ll need an old-fashioned pencil and paper and maybe a calculator. The most popular method is the Karvonen formula, which is based on your maximum heart rate (MaxHR), resting heart rate (RHR) and heart rate reserve (HRR). Here are the steps, with an example. We’ll use an example of a 40-year-old man with a resting heart rate of 60. Most methods start with the number 220, though some recommend that women use a starting point of 226.

1. 220 – your age = Max HR [220 – 40 = 180]

2. (MaxHR)-(RHR) = (HRR) [180-60=120]

3. (HRR) x (60% to 80%) = training range percent [120 x .6 =72%; 120 x .8 = 96%]

4. (Training range %) + (RHR) = your target training zone [72% + 60 =132; 96% + 60 = 156]

So for our 40-year-old male with a RHR of 60, his THR training range is 132-156 bpm (60-80%)

Using the heart rate calculator above, our same man would have a THR range of 108-144, so you can see that doing the actual math will give you a different range.

3. If you have a heart rate monitor, follow the directions on your monitor to determine your THR range. Some monitors use the same automatic calculation based on age as above; others determine a more personalized zone based on your own results during exercise.

Whichever of the three methods you use, you’ll arrive at a THR range that may or may not be right for you. Factors that influence what range is best for you is your current level of fitness, your physical ability and limitations, the type of exercise you are doing, and what you hope to achieve from your workout, whether it be for general health, weight loss, cardiovascular fitness or training for competitive events. Readers will likely need some trial and error plus additional research regarding your fitness goals, to arrive at the target heart rate that best suits your needs.

Next: How to measure your heart rate during exercise: to monitor or not.

Target Heart Rate: Part I

So what is target heart rate? Do a search on “target heart rate” and you’ll get a myriad of web sites to help you understand target heart rate. Some focus on using target heart rate for body building, others for weight loss, some for basic health, others for cardiovascular fitness. In part one I’ll try to drill down to the basics of what target heart rate is and why it’s important for exercise. If you want more information for your specific type of exercise you may want to do a more focused search, using key words of “target heart rate and body building”, or weight loss, or whatever your particular interest is. As always, if you are new to exercise you should consult your health care provider before beginning, start slow and build intensity gradually, and work within your ability and any age and physical limitations you might have.

Target heart rate measures the intensity of one’s workout by how hard your heart is working during exercise. Our hearts work at different levels of intensity depending on our activity level. If we’re sleeping or sitting idle, our heart does not have to work very hard. The measure of our heart rate at rest is called, naturally, resting heart rate (RHR). You can find your resting heart rate by counting your heart rate when you first awake in the morning (count your pulse for 30 seconds and multiply the number by two). Do this for three days, take the average of your results and you’ll have your baseline resting heart rate. How fast our heart beats at rest is determined by age, gender, health conditions, illness, some medications such as beta-blockers, and general level of fitness. Those who exercise regularly at intense levels, such as runners, cyclists, triathletes, and professional athletes generally will have a slow resting heart rate, perhaps as low as 40-60 beats per minute(bpm). This is because a very fit heart is able to beat so strongly that it does not need to beat as often to pump blood through the body. My excellent husband has a resting heart rate between 42-50 bpm and generally sets off alarms any time he’s been on a monitor for a medical procedure. Most people of average age and fitness will have a RHR between 60-80ish. Women tend to run a little higher than men because our hearts are smaller so therefore have to work a little harder.

Next, we need to understand maximum heart rate (MHR). This is the highest level of intensity at which your heart is able to work if needed, such as for running to rescue a child from a burning building. Most of us are only able to work at our maximum heart rate for short bursts of activity, and it is not recommended to try to sustain our maximum heart rate during routine exercise.

Recommendations vary, but for routine exercise, most people will aim for 50-80% of their maximum heart rate. This is the goal, or target heart rate zone (THR).

For most folks, exercise at 50-60% will be brisk, but not extremely challenging. A brisk walk where one is able to carry on a conversation, or a bike ride with kids or just tooling around the neighborhood will get you to 50-60%. At this level, you’ll maintain your level of health and reap the benefits of activity, but probably will not see significant weight loss, improvement in cardiovascular fitness, or increase your fitness to a competitive level. Those who are happy with their current weight and fitness level, or who are unable to exercise harder due to age or physical limitations, will probably want to exercise at 50-60% for 30-60 minutes most days of the week.

If you’re interested in reducing weight and improving your cardiovascular fitness, and are not already exercising vigorously, start by aiming for a THR of 60-70%, and work towards a goal of 60-80%, for 30-60 minutes at least 3-4 days a week, depending on what you hope to achieve. This level of exercise is more challenging – a brisk jog or speed walk, step aerobics, biking at a brisk pace, swimming laps. At this level of exercise you should be able to have a 3-4 word conversation, breath hard but not gasp for breath, and perspire enough to become fairly sweaty by the time you’re done. You might want to consult a trainer, join a training class (i.e. run camp or bike camp) or consult with experienced exercisers to develop an exercise program that will help you achieve this level. There are also plenty of web sites offering training information. For most people it is not necessary to work harder than 80% to achieve aerobic conditioning and weight loss.

For very fit persons interested in advanced conditioning, or for those training for advanced events such as marathons, triathlons, and iron-person competitions, you may need to include some training at a level above 80%. People interested in this kind of training would do well to consult with a trainer or join a training class.

Putting it all together: next we’ll use resting heart rate and maximum heart rate to calculate target heart rate. If you can’t wait until then, do a search on “calculate target heart rate” and you’ll find plenty of advice.

Target Heart Rate: Turn’s out it IS important!

I confess – I knew about target heart rate, and did not pay any attention to it for years. It seemed like something for athletes, and frankly, for men. (I don’t know how I got that idea, except that the only people I knew who paid any attention to it were men.) Now thanks to my excellent husband and bike guru friend, I’ve become a convert.  In the past month or so I’ve been monitoring my target heart rate, and made the amazing discovery that I’ve gotten more benefit from the past month’s exercise than I have from all the exercise I’ve done in the past several years. I’ll share more next week on the why’s and how’s, and share my personal experiment in “The Target Heart Rate Diaries.”