There’s no bigger factor determining the results of your workouts than intensity. But how can you tell if you’re exerting the right amount of effort for your specific goal? One method is identifying your target heart rate for that objective, and exercising to that intensity. Read on to find out how.
Why Is Target Heart Rate Important?
Your heart is like a tachometer for your body. Metaphorically encircling this gauge are five heart rate zones, the low end of which reflects very light activity (e.g., leisurely walking), explains Trevor Thieme, CSCS, director of fitness and nutrition content for Openfit.
At the highest RPMs you approach your maximum heart rate. The more work you’re able to do at the upper reaches (80-90 percent of MHR) of this level, the more efficiently you’re able to utilize your body’s cardiorespiratory and metabolic processes to perform activity.
Somewhere in the middle of all this is your target heart rate, which fluctuates depending on your goal (fat loss, power, endurance, etc.) and your level of fitness.
“Using a target heart rate is usually the easiest and most accurate way to gauge intensity compared to other methods, because how much you sweat or how hard you “think” you’re working are very subjective,” says San Diego-based trainer Matt Pippin, CSCS. “However high or low, your heart rate is trackable and leaves nothing to debate.”
What Are the Heart Rate Zones?
These five heart rate zones represent different levels of exertion. They’re calculated using your maximum heart rate (MHR) as a benchmark.
Zone 1 (50-60% of MHR)
Zone 2 (60-70% of MHR)
This is still fairly light effort, often jogging or walking up hills. You can still carry on a conversation, but your breathing starts to become heavier.
Zone 3 (70-80% of MHR)
Your heart will really start to beat harder and faster at this level. Conversation is still possible, but breathing will become labored.
Zone 4 (80-90% of MHR)
Zone 5 (90-100% of MHR)
This zone represents all-out effort, and is not sustainable for more than a couple of minutes at most. When sprinters compete, this is the level at which they operate.
What Is the Target Heart Rate for Fat Loss?
When it comes to cardio you probably have one of two goals: lose fat or improve endurance. Zone training can help with either, though the best zone for fat loss is a little complicated.
In general, zone 2 is known as the fat-burning zone. This is where the body turns toward fat as its primary fuel source during exercise, Thieme explains.
But when you reach the higher intensities (zones 3 through 5), your body increasingly turns to glucose and glycogen to provide energy. While fat isn’t the primary fuel source in these zones, exercising at higher intensities ultimately burns more calories (and fat) thanks to the “after-burn effect,” or excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC). Basically, it ultimately requires more energy for your body to recover from such high levels of exertion, so your metabolism remains elevated long after you’ve stopped working out, Thieme explains.
3 Ways to Calculate Your Target Heart Rate for a Goal
Before you can calculate your heart rate zones and target heart rate, you must first identify your maximum heart rate. There are several options for figuring that out.
1. Take an exercise tolerance test
This is the most accurate way to measure your maximum heart rate, according to Thieme. But it typically takes place in a lab, and involves enlisting a physician or exercise physiologist, making it the most expensive of your options.
2. Use a heart rate monitor
Your second best option is to strap on a heart rate monitor and conduct your own exercise tolerance test: Go to a track, run 400 meters as fast as you can, and then jog 400 meters. Repeat two more times (for a total of six laps).
“Your peak heart rate during that third fast lap will be your current max heart rate,” Thieme says, adding that a sternum strap is more accurate than a wrist-based monitor. “The farther the monitor is away from your heart, the less accurate it is.”
3. Do this equation
If you don’t have any gadgets, you can go the old-school route and perform some crude calculations. Thieme says the best formula is:
208-(0.7 x your age)
This is the least accurate method, and doesn’t account for key variables like genetics. But it gives you a quick-and-dirty number you can use in your workouts, Thieme says.
Whichever method you choose to determine your maximum heart rate, you’ll then use that number to calculate how many beats per minute (BMP) are needed to reach the heart rate zone that corresponds with your objective.
How to check your heart rate during a workout
As Thieme notes above, a heart rate monitor provides data in real time, and can sync with a mobile device for record keeping. If you don’t have monitoring technology, it’s pretty difficult to gauge heart rate mid-workout, Pippin says.
But one option is to periodically measure your pulse: Stop moving, place your index and middle fingers on the inside of your wrist or side of your windpipe, and count how many beats you detect in 10 seconds. Multiply that number by 6 for a rough estimate of your current heart rate.
What is a good maximum heart rate for my age?
A lot of people want to know what represents a good maximum heart rate for their age. There are a number of factors that play into this, namely your fitness history.
“If you’ve been consistently training your cardiovascular system the right way for many years, age is just a number. Your maximum heart rate will continue to be higher than others your age, since you’ve been training it,” Pippin adds.
How Can You Improve Your Heart Rate During Exercise?
“Your heart rate during exercise is a direct reflection of your age and fitness level. The younger and fitter you are, the higher your max heart rate will be, and, as a result, the higher your aerobic capacity will be,” Thieme says.
The bad news: Your max heart rate will naturally decline with age. But, whether you’re 20 or 60, the way to improve your heart rate is the same: Do more high intensity cardio.
Openfit offers a host of streaming workouts that will take you on a tour of all the heart rate zones. Try it for free now!