Exercise, Part 11: Target Heart Rate

To get the full health benefits of regular physical activity, you need to put some effort into it.  A leisurely hour-long stroll in the mall while window-shopping doesn’t pass muster, although that’s better than nothing.

One rough way to gauge whether you are working hard enough during aerobic exercise is to monitor your heart rate, also known as pulse.  Subtract your age from 220.  The result is your theoretical maximum heart rate in beats per minute.  Your heart rate goal, or target, during sustained aerobic exercise is a pulse that is 60 to 80 percent of your theoretical maximum pulse.  For example: maximum heart rate for a 40-year-old is 180 (220 – 40 = 180), so the target heart rate zone during exercise is between 108 and 144 (60 to 80 percent of 180).  Exceeding the upper end of the target zone is usually too uncomfortable to be sustainable.  Exercise heart rates below the target zone suggest you’re not working hard enough to reap the full long-term benefits of aerobic exercise.

Here’s how to determine your pulse.  After five or 10 minutes of exercise, stop moving and place the tips of your first two fingers lightly over the pulse spot inside your wrist just below the base of your thumb.  Count the pulsations for 15 seconds and multiply the number by four.  The result is your pulse or heart rate.  It will take some practice to find those pulsations coming from your radial artery.  If you can’t find it, ask a nurse or doctor for help.

Like all rules-of-thumb, this target heart rate zone isn’t always an accurate gauge of cardiovascular workout intensity.  For instance, it is of very little use in people taking drugs called beta blockers, which keep a lid on heart rate.

As you become more fit, you’ll notice that you have to work harder to get your heart rate up to a certain level.  This is a sure sign that your heart and muscles are responding to your challenge.  You may also want to monitor your resting heart rate taken in the morning before you get out of bed. Unfit, sedentary people have resting pulses of 60 to 90.  Athletes are more often in the 40s or low 50s.  Their hearts have become more efficient and just don’t need to beat as often to get the job done.

As you become more fit, you’ll also notice that you have more energy overall and it’s easier to move about and handle physical workloads. You’ll feel more relaxed and have a sense of accomplishment. Expect these benefits eight to 12 weeks after starting a regular exercise program.

Steve Parker, M.D.


Filed under Exercise

2 responses to “Exercise, Part 11: Target Heart Rate

  1. “Your heart rate goal, or target, during sustained aerobic exercise is a pulse that is 60 to 80 percent of your theoretical maximum pulse. ” Based on what, exactly? I am surprised, considering the crowd you run with (FatHead, WholeHealthSource) that you would recommend what most paleos disdainfully refer to as “chronic cardio”. I strongly urge you and anyone else who thinks excessive cardio is healthy to refer to Dr. Harris’ post on Psychology today: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/p-nu/201103/cardio-may-cause-heart-disease-part-i

    • Yeah, David, some of my post may seem a bit outdated. Lately I’m impressed with the benefits of HIIT (high intesity interval training) as a replacement for traditional cardio training. That’s what I’ve done personally. I wrote a wee bit about it here:
      I think HIIT is still considered cardio training.

      Some of the best evidence for the long-term health benefits of aerobic training is from Blair and associates, especially regarding longevity. We don’t have that sort of data from people like Doug McGuff (Body By Science). Perhaps a pure strength training program is just as good as, or better than, a pure aerobic program – I anxiously await the long-term health outcome data. Maybe a mix is best – the jury is still out.

      I bet the strength training purists are getting their heart rates up significantly and persistently during their work-outs. I’ve been doing Mark Verstegen’s Core Performance lately, and I know he advises against a lot of sitting around chatting between weight training sets. You keep moving, with an elevated respiratory rate and heart rate, while you pump iron.

      Regarding the paleolithic concept of exercise, I bet our tribal ancestors during a hunt often simply injured their prey and had to chase it for miles, to find the wounded animal and finish it off before other predators got it. A good aerobic base should help with that.

      I appreciate your input.