Whether you’re new to exercise or a super-fit athlete in training, it’s best if you understand how your cardiovascular system is handling your workout routine.
Knowing if you’re working too hard or not enough isn’t always an exact science, but one way to help determine this is monitoring your heart rate, or rate of exertion.
Ideally, you should learn your target heart rate for training. Below we cover easy methods to calculate this, as well as the simplest alternative for monitoring your exertion level on the go.
Rating Perceived Exertion
If you’re a beginner with exercise or participating in a new training activity, it makes sense to pay attention to your body and how it’s adapting to the physical workout.
Borg Rating Perceived Exertion Scale
0 Nothing at all
0.5 Very, very weak (just noticeable)
1 Very weak
2 Weak (light)
4 Somewhat strong
5 Strong (heavy)
7 Very Strong
You can check in on the intensity of your current activity, at any time, by using the “Borg Scale for Rating of Perceived Exertion.” (RPE) This scale simply ranks, by numbers up to 10, how difficult you feel the exercise is.
As your fitness level progresses, you will notice you “perceive exertion” to be less for the same activities that ranked higher on the scale when you started. Your effort and pace can be adjusted when your RPE indicates you need to work harder or go easier, to reach a moderate level of intensity, help avoid injury, etc.
While RPE is not an accurate measurement of heart rate, the Borg Scale is convenient—no skills or equipment needed and you don’t have to stop what you’re doing to take your pulse.
Simply pay attention to how you feel at various times during exercise. Make sure you are measuring your feelings of overall fatigue, not focusing on one body part (like tired legs) or movement difficulty (like complex choreography). Then honestly rate your exertion using the scale. Moderate cardio workouts are a goal: you’re shooting 3 – 4 on this scale.
Take Your Pulse
The term heart rate is in reference to your pulse. By taking your pulse, you can learn the proper ranges, or targets, for your heart rate during exercise, as well as during rest.
To take your pulse: Use the tips of your first two fingers to press lightly over the blood vessels on your wrist. The proper location is on the inside of your wrist, nearer to the thumb, when your palm is facing up. You should feel the pulses of blood being pumped with every heartbeat. Count your pulse for 10 seconds and multiply by 6 to find your beats per minute.
If you take your pulse while completely at rest, you’ll learn your Resting Heart Rate (RHR). You can use your RHR in the target training heart rate calculation below, and also to track your general fitness level, and periods of stress. A low resting heart rate indicates a highly efficient cardiovascular system and a heart that can pump a lot of blood with each beat.
To learn your RHR, check your pulse first thing in the morning for five consecutive days before getting out of bed, and then figure the average of those results.
Next, calculate your Maximum Heart Rate (MHR), which is the highest number of beats your heart can handle, per minute. You can use this figure to calculate heart rate zones for training, which are based on the percentage of maximum heart rate.
Stress testing and heart rate monitors offer the most accurate results for MHR, but an easy, accepted formula for estimating maximum heart rate is to use the number 220 (for adult males) or 226 (females), minus your age. While this provides a good starting point for average adults, keep in mind this method not personal to your genetics, health and fitness level.
Your target heart rate for training will fall between 50 – 85 percent of your MHR. 50% – 70% is a moderate zone for most beginners, and 80% – 85% is considered the max zone for a heavy workout.
Another formula, the more personalized “Karvonen Method,” takes the RHR and MHR into consideration as you determine your training zone. You can arrive at your target heart rate for a challenging “80% of max” workout with the following equation:
80% training heart rate = (MHR – RHR) x 80% + RHR [ex: (200 – 60) x 80% + 60 = 172].
Wear a Monitor
Heart rate monitors measure various physical and metabolic processes in your body. You can wear a digital monitor which uses biofeedback to calculate any number of responses to exercise, daily activity and even rest.
There are many models available on the market, offering a variety of functions that can be tailored to your personal fitness level and your goals. One valuable function is an alert when your intensity levels increase or decrease beyond target ranges. This helps you get the most from your workouts, and also avoid overtraining and injuries.
Polar heart rate monitors are also a highly recognized brand, providing a range of features and price points. The Loop is a wristband (or “fitness bracelet”) that allows you to track your activity around the clock, and also offers feedback to help you reach your goals. It is waterproof, so it can be worn swimming. The FT60 model, which looks and reads like a wristwatch, has versions for men and woman, and can also be worn while swimming.
With the information you learn by monitoring your heart, you can track your progress and moderate your workout according to the optimal target heart rate levels for you.