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Exercise Target Heart Rate: What You Should Know

You’re out for a run: the sun is shining, the birds are singing and you can feel your heart pumping away in your chest. It’s a familiar feeling and the satisfying hallmark of a good workout. However, though most of us know that it’s good to get moving and get the heart rate up, how do you know if you’re exercising at the right intensity? That’s where a target heart rate can be a handy measurement to understand.

What Is Target Heart Rate?

“Heart rate basically tells you how hard you’re working,” explains Dr. Neel Chokshi, Medical Director of the Penn Sports Cardiology and Fitness Program. “We use it to help guide individuals to an appropriate intensity workout”.

To determine the appropriate intensity or heart rate window for your workout, you first need to figure out your maximum heart rate. This is the predicted maximal beats per minute that your heart can generate during exercise. Each individual’s max heart rate is unique and dependent on a number of factors, including your fitness level. Ideally, we would have you complete an exercise test to directly measure your max heart rate with your greatest effort.

However, when this is not available, an easy way to estimate this is to subtract your age from 220. This is often what the machines at the gyms use to determine your heart rate goals. If you’re 40 years old, for instance:

220-40= 180
Maximum predicted heart rate: 180

“That’s the theoretical maximum number of beats per minute you can experience during exercise. Depending on your cardiovascular risk and your fitness goals, we target specific heart rate ranges below this number in what we call your target heart rate zone. This is the zone where you’re working hard enough to condition the heart, but not overtaxing it,” Dr. Chokshi explains.

“Your heart rate during moderate intensity exercise is about 65-80% of your maximum heart rate. Periodically check your heart rate as you exercise: if it’s too high, consider a decrease in intensity, too low and you may need to challenge yourself a little more and kick up the intensity. In general, we recommend achieving 150 minutes of moderate intensity activity per week. Heart rate monitoring can be useful to help ensure you meeting these goals.”

Calculating Target Heart Rate

“An easy and accurate way to check your heart rate is to wear a heart rate monitor during exercise,” explains Chris Kusmiesz, Exercise Physiologist with the Penn Sports Cardiology and Fitness Program. “These devices have sensors that can be worn around your chest and display the heart rate on a watch. With improvements in technology, many of the new devices are now capable of detecting heart rate through your wrist with a watch-like device. One potential drawback is that the wrist monitors can be inaccurate at high heart rates or excessive motion, but they can still provide general guidance.” This makes it super easy to keep track of heart rate and exercise intensity.Target heart rate graphic

It’s important to note that the calculations above are only a guideline. Certain medications, including some blood pressure medications, can affect heart rate. Similarly, those with a heart condition or in cardiac rehab may require special considerations or monitoring when starting an exercise routine.

An exercise physiologist can be a wonderful resource to help you establish a safe, effective exercise plan that takes into account your age, habitual physical activity level, physical fitness level, overall health status and fitness goals. The Penn Sports Cardiology and Fitness Program has an experienced exercise physiologist on staff, as well as a team of cardiologists, nurses and dietitians that can help create an exercise plan that is right for you.

About this Blog

The Penn Heart and Vascular blog provides the latest information on heart disease prevention, nutrition and breakthroughs in cardiovascular care.


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