News | Published April 5, 2014 | Written by Jeffrey Eaton, MD, cardiology, Mount Nittany Physician Group

Understanding your heart rate

It is important for everyone, not just athletes, to understand heart rate, especially as it relates to physical fitness. Your heart rate, or pulse, can help you monitor your fitness level, and it can be an important tool in determining your overall heart health. Let’s discuss a few topics regarding how heart rate plays a role in your overall health:

What is a pulse? Your pulse is the number of times your heart beats in one minute. It varies from person to person. It is lower when you are at rest and increases when you exercise.

Resting heart rate This is when your heart rate is slowest and the heart is pumping the least amount of blood you need. For adults, sitting or lying, calm and relaxed, a resting heart rate is normally between 60 beats per minute and 80 beats per minute. For athletes, the resting heart rate could even be lower than 60.

Maximum Heart Rate – This is the highest your pulse rate can get. A common formula used to predict your maximum heart rate is as follows:

  • Men: 220 - your age = maximum heart rate per minute
  • Women: 226 - your age = maximum heart rate per minute

Remember, this is only an estimate. Your true maximum rate could be as many as 15 beats higher or lower.

10-second pulse – A quick way to determine your pulse is to count your heartbeats for 10 seconds and then multiply this by 6. This will be your heart rate per minute.

What is your Target Heart Rate Zone?

When you are exercising, this is the range where you gain the most benefits with the least amount of risk. It is the heart rate to aim for when exercising. Typically, this is between 50 to 85 percent of your maximum heart rate. It is not recommended to exercise above 85 percent of your maximum heart rate, as doing so can increase your health risk and does not add extra benefit.

For example, a 30-year old man’s maximum heart rate would be approximately 190. Therefore, his target heart rate zone equates to between 95 and 162 beats per minute.

How do you use your Target Heart Rate Zone when exercising?

To determine if you are exercising in your target zone, stop exercising and check your 10-second pulse. If this is below your target zone, increase your rate of exercise. If your pulse is above your target zone, decrease your rate of exercise.

It is important to always consult your healthcare provider before starting any new exercise program. Once you begin, gradually build up to a level that is within your target heart rate zone, especially if you have not exercised regularly before. If the exercise feels too hard, slow down.

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