You may hear people tell you to “listen to your heart” when you ask for advice on a difficult decision. It’s equally good advice when we apply it to the concept of exercise. Exercise is great in any form, but ideally we want to participate in activities that raise our heartbeat above it’s resting rate….and no, watching that heart-pounding police chase in your favorite action movie from the comfort of your couch doesn’t count. But what should we be listening for? What is our optimal heart beat? How do we achieve our ideal heart rate? Well, listen up, because I’m going to tell you.
First, we should understand how our heart operates when we are inactive. The average adult has a resting heartbeat between 60 and 100 beats per minute. Sometime during the day when you have not been exerting yourself, sit down for a few minutes and rest. Place two fingers on the underside of your wrist over your radial artery (beside your tendon on the thumb side of your hand). Count the number of beats you feel during 15 seconds. Multiply this by 4 and you have your resting heartbeat.
Some people may have a slightly higher or lower heartbeat than average, but this can be normal. Athletic people and people who are taking certain medications might have a resting heartbeat closer to 40 beats per minute. Finding what is normal for you personally is important so you can use it as a tool to gauge your overall health and activity level while exercising.
So what is your target heart rate when you exercise? Start with 220 and then subtract your current age. This is your maximum heart rate. For light to moderate exercise, you want to be at 50-70% of your maximum heart rate. For heavy exercise, shoot for 70-90% of your maximum. Hitting your maximum heart rate is not a good thing. It means you are straining and should slow down. If you are just starting out on an exercise program, take it slow and start with some light exercise. As your body gets comfortable with the increased activity, you may find that you can workout comfortably at a higher heart rate.
The cardio machines at your gym probably have built in heart rate monitors (those silver handles you hold onto). These work well and can help you keep track of how your workout is going. You may also want to consider investing in a personal heart rate monitor. For those participating in weight-loss programs or those recovering from a cardiac event, a good heart rate monitor is invaluable. Many models will indicate with an audible alarm when you are exceeding your target heart rate for that activity. This can help you maximize weight loss or ensure a gradual recovery from injury.
Knowing your heart rate and monitoring it while exercising isn’t an absolute rule, but it’s a great tool to monitor your health and the effectiveness of your workouts. Look for your personal target zones and make sure you know your maximum heart rate. Your heart is the thing that keeps you going, so take care of it and listen to what it’s telling you. Don’t forget, there are lots of resources out there to help you understand your personal fitness, but it’s important to consult a physician before starting any new exercise program, especially if you have an existing medical condition or are taking prescription medications.