We know staying active is important for staying healthy – but just how much activity is enough, and how much is too much? An approach to fitness called "heart rate training" provides some general guidelines. The goal is to reach and maintain a target heart rate while exercising. This practice can help ensure you're working hard enough to reach your fitness goals without putting your health at risk.
Heart rate math
Heart rate training begins with figuring out your maximum heart rate, which is the maximum number of times your heart should beat per minute during exercise. This is important to know to protect your heart and the rest of your cardiovascular system. This number also provides a rough guideline for what might be safe for the rest of your body as well.
Serious athletes might use a treadmill-based stress test to learn their maximum heart rate. For the rest of us, though, there's an easy formula – simply subtract your age from 220. So, for example, a 40-year-old would have a maximum heart rate of 180 beats per minute (bpm).
Heart rate zones
You don't want to be working at your maximum heart rate throughout your workout. Instead, aim for a heart rate training zone that matches your fitness goals:
- Moderate intensity zone. This falls between 50% and 70% of your maximum heart rate. So, for an average 40-year-old, this would equal 90-126 bpm.
- Vigorous intensity zone. This falls between 70% and 85% of your maximum heart rate. So, for an average 40-year-old, this would equal 126-153 bpm.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends we all get at least 150 minutes a week of moderate intensity exercise, or 75 minutes a week of vigorous intensity exercise.
Heart rate training plan
Once you've calculated your target heart rate and heart rate zones, you can begin to develop your heart rate training plan. The following workout offers an example of an effective way to put heart rate training to work for you:
- 5-minute warmup. Gradually bring your heart rate up to your personal moderate intensity zone.
- 30-minute workout. Aim to stay within either your moderate or vigorous intensity zone for a full half hour.
- 5-minute cool-down. Slowly reduce the intensity of your exercise to bring your heart rate back down to normal levels.
Getting to your optimal heart rate
You might not be able to hit your target heart rate zone at first. You also might not be able to maintain it for a full 30 minutes. Interval training can help you build up to that level over time. Slow your pace for a few minutes, then work your way back up to your target zone. Try to maintain that level for one to two minutes (or longer), then slow back down again. Repeat these cycles for 30 minutes. Over time, you'll likely be able to spend more time in your heart rate zone as your fitness improves.
Be sure to check with your doctor if this kind of exercise plan is new for you, or if it's been a while since you exercised regularly. Also, some medications for blood pressure and other conditions can lower your recommended maximum and target heart rates. Check with your doctor to see if any of your current prescriptions fall into this category.