Studies show that optimum exercise intensity for fitness improvement is in the range of about 40% to 85% of (HRR) heart rate reserve. Of course, the fitter you are, the higher the appropriate exercise intensity. Very deconditioned individuals may begin to improve at about 30-40% of HRR.
OKAY, HERE IS AN ISSUE THAT CALLS FOR SOME SIFTING OF FACTS FROM FICTION, OR AT THE VERY LEAST, POINTING OUT UNRELIABLE DATA.
Below is the popular Target Heart Rate chart seen in most gyms across America. I suggest you use it in conjunction with other ways of measuring intensities too, just to be safer and closer to accurate.
This theory surmises that your maximum heart rate is about 220 minus your age. However, this chart is only accurate for about 75% of the population. This limitation can be overcome, to some extent, by combining the HRR (heart rate reserve) method with the RPE (ratings of perceived exertion) method, which I explain more the RPE section below.
The HRR method or the Karvonen Method factors in your resting heart rate, therefore, helps alleviate the margin of error a bit also. The actual equation for the HRR, then, is
220 - age = estimated max heart rate
Estimated max HR - resting heart rate = HRR
HRR x percentage = percentage of HRR
Percent of HRR + resting heart rate = target HR
Of course you need a range, so let's say you you are a 40-year-old with a resting heart rate of 70 bpm who wants to train at a vigorous pace of 60-85% of your HRR.
220 - 40 = 180
180 - 70 = 110
110 x .60 = 66 (60%)
110 x .85 = 94 (85%)
66 + 70 = 136
94 + 70 = 164.
Therefore your target heart rate zone for working at a vigorous intensity using the HRR method would be 136-164 bpm. If you want a 10-second count you can divide that by 6 which would give you the range of 23-27.
Note: Some high blood pressure medications lower the maximum heart rate and thus the target zone rate. If you're taking such meds, call your doctor to see if you need to use a lower target heart rate.
BIG HONKIN' NEWS FLASH: There is a great deal of controversy over the 220-minus-age theory. Here it is in a nutshell: It overestimates the maximum rate in young adults, does a pretty good job for people who are around 40 years old, and then increasingly underestimates the maximum rate as people get older.
Apparently, it can be off by as much as 30 beats or so. And get this, the guy who invented it didn't EVEN mean for it to become the "LAW" of max heart rates. To read the real facts about this issue, click here. It is a very short and enlightening article and well worth the read.
MORAL OF THIS STORY: Use caution when using age group average maximal heart-rate tables and the 220-minus-age formula for the aforementioned reasons.
So, how do we know what our heart rate max is, and once we know what we are aiming for, what is the best way to measure it, you ask?
My advice as a fitness professional is use the Karvonen or HRR method I explained above for figuring your personal THR with caution and experiment with other strategies for finding your max heart rate and desired target heart rate, because everybody's is different. It also depends on your level of fitness, physical limitations, etc. Use a combination of HRR, the RPE (ratings of perceived exertion), and common sense when exercising and you should be able to find "your" best training zone.
NOTE: If you are in the habit of trusting the built-in heart rate monitor on your favorite piece of cardio equipment, DON'T. Many times these are inaccurate and should not be relied upon for monitoring your intensity.
In summary, you will want to check your pulse every so often while exercising to get your heart rate into your desired HRR range and then try to assess on a scale of 1-10 how hard you are working and alter your intensity accordingly, trying to stay in what you think is "your" zone.
CHECKING YOUR HEART RATE
To check your heart rate you can find your pulse in 2 different locations.
1)The carotid artery on the side of your neck as my friend, Rachel, is so graciously showing here:
THE TALK TEST
Or…if you aren’t motivated by numbers, you can always check your intensity level by using the talk test. This method entails maintaining an intensity of exercise at which conversation is comfortable. If breathing is labored and difficult, the intensity is too great.
RATINGS OF PERCEIVED EXERTION OR RPE
Yet another way is to use ratings of perceived exertion or RPE. The easiest way to do this is use the 1-10 scale, as shown in the chart below.
HEART RATE MONITORS
Let's not forget to mention the heart rate monitor. This is the easiest method since you don't have to find your pulse or do any math or counting. But, let's face it. Not many of us want to strap on a monitor around our chest, arm, or wrist every time we go for a cardio workout. However, it is a very reliable option, so I thought I'd better mention it.
And one more thing! Be careful not to get into the habit of strolling comfortably along on the treadmill for hours, never challenging your heart barely past the napping stage. I see it all the time in the gym. Come on peeps! We gotta move it to lose it! They don't call it "progressive" training for nothing.
Most importantly, get up and go do your cardio on a regular basis and make sure you are getting into your what?...that's right...all together now...YOUR TARGET HEART RATE ZONE!! Yay...and the crowd goes wild!
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