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Exercise and Target Heart Rate  

The fitness world is full of gadgets. Some are helpful, but many are more trouble than they are worth. Regardless of what shape you are in, one device you might find useful is a heart rate monitor.

The key to cardiovascular fitness is getting a good, but safe, aerobic workout. Heart rate monitors, which monitor your heart rate while you exercise, can help you do that with ease. They range from relatively simple devices that show at a glance how many times per minute your heart is beating, to devices that record information like how long you were exercising at your target heart rate.

Although target heart rates might seem too complex for beginners, it's important information to know regardless of your fitness level.

Here's a simple way to determine your maximum and target heart rates: Subtract your age from 220 to figure out your maximum heart rate. For instance, if you are 35, your maximum heart rate is 185 beats per minute. Your target heart rate is 50% to 85% of that number, or 93 beats to 157 beats per minute. These numbers are based on a healthy adult.

Feel the pulse

Hand palm side up showing two fingers from opposite hand pressing two fingers below thumb. ECG trace shows heartbeat.
Checking your heart rate during your workouts can help you stay in your target range.

Now that you know what your target heart rate should be, you can calculate your heart or pulse rate using a watch. To take your wrist, or radial, pulse, hold one hand in front of you, palm upward. Gently place the index and middle fingers of the other hand near the thumb-side of the wrist to feel the pulse. You should not need to press hard to feel the pulse. It is generally better to check the radial pulse, but if for some reason you need to check your neck, or carotid pulse, be sure to check only one side at a time. Never press hard. Count the beats for 30 seconds, then multiply this number by 2 to give you the beats per minute.

This method is fine for many exercisers. If you like the idea of having that information instantly available in the middle of a workout, you might want to buy a monitor.

Heart rate monitors aren't as exact as an electrocardiogram (ECG) test, but they can be very accurate. The most inexpensive models have 2 parts: a small transmitter mounted on a belt that wraps around your chest, and a device like a wristwatch that displays the numbers. There are no wires. The watch-like monitor picks up signals from the transmitter. More modern devices have the ECG recorder embedded in a watch and watchband. It can not only detect heart rate but also record the heart rhythm.

If you have an irregular heart rhythm, heart rate monitors are not accurate for you. If you aren't aware of this, your results can cause panic. The sensors are not sensitive enough to tell the difference between early heart beats and may calculate a very low heart rate. The sensors may also pick up vibrations from a moving car or using an electric toothbrush and calculate a high heart rate in error. Don't panic. Take your pulse manually, as above, to see if the monitor is accurately counting your pulse. Or check with your healthcare provider to make sure you are OK. More modern watches are able to detect abnormal heart rhythms with more accuracy than just heart rate monitors. However, the accuracy of these newer wearable devices is not yet known. But if you feel extremely tired or weak, have chest pressure, feel like you can't get enough air, or feel faint, get medical care right away by calling 911

Getting feedback

Whether you walk, jog, run, bicycle or use stationary bikes, rowers, or ski machines, you can see some real benefits. Feedback on your progress is important support when you exercise. You'll find that over time you'll be able to perform longer within your target heart rate range. You'll also notice that as you get more in shape, you can do some tasks at a lower heart rate, or run even farther or faster at the same heart rate.

Too often, though, beginners can push too hard. They think exercise has to hurt and they'll work out at a pace that's impossible to keep up. A monitor helps them set limits so they don't overdo it.

If you are a newcomer to exercise, check with your healthcare provider before starting a fitness program. Your provider also can help you determine what target heart range is best for you based on your health.

Run up your pulse

Your heart rate will change depending on what type of exercise you are doing. For example, weight training can get your heart rate up to about 70% of its upper limit. It won't stay that high for long, because lifting weights isn't a constant effort.

On the other hand, people who ride stationary bikes can generally maintain 75% of their target heart rate for about 30 minutes of a 40-minute workout.

Runners who are in great shape also will generally maintain a high heart rate for long periods, approaching 80% to 85% for miles at a time.

Online Medical Reviewer: Ronald Karlin MD
Online Medical Reviewer: Stacey Wojcik MBA BSN RN
Online Medical Reviewer: Thomas N Joseph MD
Date Last Reviewed: 3/1/2022
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