Understanding Your Heart Rates and Exercise

What is the optimum heart rate to exercise at for fitness improvement and fat burning? What does my resting heart rate tell me? Why is my heart rate always so high? If you find yourself asking these questions, you are not alone. Very few people know the answers to these questions and even fewer understand the physiology behind the answers. Since understanding your heart rate is critical to exercising safely, effectively and enjoyably, the next four articles will address these questions and discuss heart rates and exercise.

In this first article, I will define maximum and target heart rates and explain how they relate to exercise. I will also discuss the most accurate methods for identifying your target heart rate.

What Is Your Maximum Heart Rate?

Maximum heart rate is the highest beats per minute your heart can achieve. It is not sustainable since it is an all out effort. It is essential to know your personal maximum heart rate in order to calculate effective target heart rates to use during exercise.

It is always amusing to me when a client comes in for an appointment and says, "Whew, I just finished that spinning class and I worked at my maximum heart rate for 30 minutes straight!" This is impossible to do because even the most highly trained, professional athletes in the world can only maintain their maximum heart rates for three to four minutes. Any longer and they would collapse with exhaustion.

To understand what maximum heart rate is read the following scenario:

I put you on a treadmill and I increase the speed or the incline every minute until you fall off the back of the treadmill exhausted. We do not stop the test until you are physically exhausted. I record your heart rate every minute as you push yourself harder than you ever felt possible. When every cell in your body wants to stop you push through for a minute or two longer -- faster, steeper all the while. Your heart rate plateaus -- even though I continue to increase the workload for another minute or two. Finally, your muscles succumb to the fatigue and you collapse with exhaustion. (Note: Do not under any circumstances try this at home without prior physician clearance and even then it can be dangerous.)

The heart rate at which you plateau is your maximum heart rate. I want to reiterate that this is hard, all out maximal exertion. The good news is that you do not need to train at this level of effort or intensity unless you are training for a specific event that requires this type of exertion.

Here are some interesting facts about maximum heart rate:

  • Maximum heart rate is not a trainable attribute. This means as you become more or less fit -- your maximum heart rate does not change.
  • The more fit you become the more work you can do at your maximum heart rate. This means you will be biking, swimming or running faster with improved fitness.
  • Medications in the Beta blocker family (Lopressor, Tenormin, Lopid, Metoprolol, Atenolol Propranolol etc.) will lower your resting heart rate and your maximum heart rate.
  • Maximum heart rate is not correlated to fitness level. The amount of work you can do at your maximum heart rate is the thing that is related to your fitness level.

What Is Your Target Heart Rate?

Mathematically it is the range between 70 and 85 percent of your maximum heart rate.

  • Depending on your medical history, this might be altered so be sure to discuss it with your doctor if you have any health concerns at all.
  • Different types of workouts might call for slightly different intensities

What are the Benefits of Knowing Your Target Heart Rate?

  • Guaranteed optimal calorie and fat burning during your workouts.
  • Optimal fitness and performance improvement.
  • Maximal enjoyment of exercise time.
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