Staying in the Zone: The Importance of Maintaining Your Target Heart Rate

When people start an exercise program, they often look for even the smallest of ways to measure their progress. And some may be disappointed if they don’t lose three dress sizes or break the four-minute mile in a week. But a great way to assess your progress is to measure your target heart rate.

A target heart rate is a percentage of your maximum heart rate. That’s the fastest your heart can safely beat based on your age. Improving heart fitness often requires raising your heart rate to between 50 percent and 75 percent of its maximum and keeping it there for 20 minutes. But exercise has also been shown to have healthy benefits even if it’s broken up into smaller amounts of time throughout the day.

What is my target heart rate zone?
As you age, your maximum heart rate decreases. Estimate your rate by subtracting your age from the number 220.

In general, activity that raises the heart rate above 85 percent of its maximum rate is too strenuous. And, any activity that increases the heart rate to less than half of the maximum may not give you as much benefit. But these numbers depend on many factors, including your general health and any medicines you might be taking.

Your target heart rate zone generally falls between 50 percent and 85 percent of your maximum heart rate. For a 20-year old with a maximum heart rate of 200, that zone runs from 100 to 170 beats per minute. For a 70-year old it may be 75 to 128. Your doctor can tell you what your personal target heart rate should be.

When you start your exercise program or increase your activity level, ask your doctor for guidance. If you are in good health, the doctor may suggest starting out by aiming for 50 percent of your maximum heart rate. Once your fitness improves, it may be advised that you slowly build your heart rate up to 75 percent. After six months or more, you may be able to perform comfortably up to a rate of 85 percent. But you don’t have to maintain that level to reap the benefits.

How do I tell if I’m reaching my target heart rate?
To determine your heart rate, you need to take your pulse. Do it right after working out to see if you’re in your target zone, or pause during your workout to take your pulse. To take your pulse:

•Lightly place the tips of your first two fingers (not your thumb) over blood vessels either:
◦On the inside of your wrist, on the thumb side.
◦On your neck to either side of your Adam’s apple.
•The beating or pulsing sensation is your pulse.
•Count your pulse for 60 seconds.
◦This gives you the number of beats per minute.
•The final number should be within your target heart rate zone.
If you find your target heart rate zone is too high, you’re straining and should slow down. If the number is too low – and the intensity feels too light – you may be able to push a bit harder. Don’t push yourself to the limit, though. A rule to follow might be to maintain a “conversational pace.” If, while walking briskly, you can:

The talk test is an easy way to measure how hard you are working out.

•If you can talk but not sing, you are doing moderate-intensity activity.
•At a vigorous activity level, you can say just a few words then need to pause for a breath.
Stop right away and call 9-1-1 if you have any chest pain or severe shortness of breath.

Before you start to exercise, speak to your doctor. Some medications (such as blood pressure drugs) may raise or lower your maximum heart rate and target heart rate zone. If you’re taking drugs that can affect your heart rate, talk to your doctor about adjusting your target heart rate zone and activity program.

Remember that pacing yourself is the key to effective fitness, especially if you’ve been inactive.

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