How to check your heart rate: A healthy maximum and target heart rate during exercise

How to check your heart rate: A healthy maximum and target heart rate during exercise

  • The wrist or neck is usually the easiest place to check your heart rate.
  • To calculate the upper limit of what your body can handle during vigorous exercise, aka your max heart rate, subtract your age from 220.
  • Your heart rate for extended periods of exercise, aka your target heart rate, should be between 64% and 76% of your maximum heart rate.
  • This article was reviewed by Jason R. McKnight, MD, MS, a family medicine physician and clinical assistant professor at Texas A&M College of Medicine.

Checking your heart rate is as simple as taking your pulse. According to John Osborne, MD, a Dallas-based cardiologist, routinely checking your heart rate sets a baseline for you to better understand your cardiovascular health.

“If you know your general heart rate, and if it goes out of kilter, that can give you a warning – a heads up – to say, ‘I need to look into this,'” Osborne says.

Here’s how to check your resting heart rate, and calculate your max and target heart rate when exercising.

How to check your resting heart rate

The best places to check your pulse are your wrists, the inside of your elbow, the side of your neck, and the top of the foot, according to The American Heart Association.

The wrist or neck is easiest for most people, Osborne says, but wherever you can get a good read is fine – there’s no location that’s necessarily more accurate than another.

Here’s how to do it:

  • Place your index and middle finger on your wrist or neck. Refrain from moving or talking as you press gently and feel for a mild thumping sensation.
  • When you feel a consistent pulse, keep your two fingers in the same spot.
  • Using a timer to keep track, count your pulse for thirty seconds. Multiply that number by two to calculate your heart rate in beats per minute.

According to Osborne, it makes sense to check your heart rate regularly – about every month or so. To get the most accurate measurement, you should take it a few times in a row and try not to smoke, drink alcohol, or have caffeine beforehand, as they can influence your heart rate.

Resting heart rate usually runs around 60 to 100 bpm in adults, but it can vary based on your age, genetics, health conditions, and fitness level. And, when you want to check your heart rate while exercising, you’ll need to use a different measure.

How to calculate your heart rate while exercising

Exercise intensity is linked to how fast your heart beats, so keeping track of your heart rate can give you an idea of how hard your body is working – and what’s typical for you.

There are two common measures: The first is the max heart rate, which is the upper limit of what your body can handle during exercise. And the second is your target heart rate, the ideal range to ensure your heart is being worked properly.

You can calculate your maximum heart rate by subtracting your age from 220. Then, when you’re doing moderate physical activity, your target heart rate should be between 64% and 76% of your maximum – and for vigorous activity, the target is between 77% and 93%.

So, for example, an average, healthy 30-year-old should have a heart rate that stays between 121 and 144 beats per minute during moderate exercise, and between 146 and 176 bpm during intense exercise to get the most out of their workout.

However, if your heart rate is higher than your target range during exercise, consider possible explanations before getting too worried. Osborne says he often sees people unnecessarily concerned if their heart rate is higher than that “target” range when, in fact, they might just be seeing the effects of starting a new workout routine.

Max and target heart rate may not be the most accurate measures

The limitations of these measures, Osborne says, is that everyone’s heart is different. In reality, some 30-year-olds might be fine with a heart rate upwards of 176 bpm, while others’ muscles cramp up if they get above 146 bpm.

As Harvard Medical School points out, normal heart rate varies from person to person – and not all experts agree on what “normal” means.

“It’s very individualized depending upon your own muscles and genetics,” Obsorne says. “Looking at heart rate to predict, ‘Am I in the zone or not?’ is just not terribly accurate, unfortunately.”

For those who want to increase endurance by hitting their anaerobic threshold, it’s better instead to ask yourself: Do my muscles hurt? Am I breathing OK? Can I still carry on a conversation?

To measure your personal limits, you can also do cardiopulmonary stress testing, where a doctor measures how well your heart and lungs are working while you exercise on a stationary bike or treadmill. This involves hooking you up to an electrocardiogram, a blood pressure cuff, and a mouthpiece to measure your breathing.

Since both your heart and lungs respond to the energy demands of exercise, measuring them in this way tells your doctor how well your body is working to absorb the added stress, according to Stanford Health Care.

The test is often done by professional athletes, Osborne says. “If you can move that number and improve the efficiency of the muscles, that can mean you run faster, you perform better.”

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