We’re more obsessed with the analytics of our health than ever before. With newer technology and better insight into how our bodies work, we’re able to fine-tune the ideal routines for our personal physiology, as opposed to just following a generically prescribed regimen. In particular, many of us are paying more and more attention to our heart health. Given that heart disease is the leading cause of death in America regardless of gender (scary!), this makes total sense.
These two obsessions intersect in the latest fitness “trend”: heart rate training. Fortunately, unlike fast fashion or a techy gadget that’ll be obsolete within a year’s time, this good-for-you fitness focus has some real staying power, and is doctor-approved.
What is heart rate training?
Simply put, “Heart rate training uses your heart rate to determine your effort while exercising. The higher the heart rate is, the greater the intensity,” says Suzanne Steinbaum, MD, a preventative cardiologist on Peloton’s Health and Wellness Advisory Council, and an American Heart Association fellow. Monitoring where your heart rate is throughout a workout can help optimize your fitness program (and your health).
Benefits of heart rate training
1. It’s personal
Tailoring your workout to how it affects your heart rate can help you get more out of a training session. “You need to exercise in the zone that is right for you!” says Dr. Steinbaum. “Think about how many times on a run or in the gym—or even on a Peloton—you’re looking at what someone else is doing. A little competition is fine, but if you’re watching your heart rate and working to the level that’s best for you, you’re winning every day.”
2. It’s safe
Keeping an eye on your heart rate could prevent overtraining, Dr. Steinbaum says. And conversely, it lets you know if you’re “not exercising hard enough,” so that you can pick things up and “maximize your exercise for the greatest cardiovascular benefits.” The best zone for heart-healthy benefits? Moderate intensity.
3. It’s trackable
“If you can measure it, you can improve it,” says Rob Darnbrough, CPT, co-founder of the Smart Fit Method, a fitness program designed to optimize cardiovascular health through exercise robotics and AI. Your heart rate is a more useful metric for tracking your fitness level than something like the scale.
Additionally, HR training can “determine when the body is burning fat versus carbohydrates, sometimes referred to as aerobic versus anaerobic,” says Darnbrough. Working out at our maximum aerobic function (MAF) allows the body to oxidize fat for energy.
4. It’s doctor-approved
Dr. Steinbaum says, “I always recommend heart rate training to my patients, and friends, and anyone who will listen!”
Who is heart rate training for?
Anyone can benefit from tracking their heart rate and using it to exercise in an optimal range. As long as your doctor has signed off, improving aerobic threshold is useful for everyone, says Darnbrough. “Heart rate training, specifically when we discuss MAF, helps our body become effective at using our stored fat for energy.”
Dr. Steinbaum agrees wholeheartedly (pun intended) that this is the ideal training method for all people. “It takes into account all fitness levels,” she says. “The only people who need to be cautious are those who are on blood pressure medications that slow the heart rate down, such as beta-blockers or calcium channel blockers.” If you have any questions or concerns, talk to your healthcare provider for guidance.
How to get started
Find your zone
To determine your best heart rate zone, use this calculation: 220 minus your age, times 50 to 70 percent, says Dr. Steinbaum. For example, if you’re 30, the general range would be 190 x 0.5 to 190 x 0.7, which would mean 95 to 133 beats per minute (BPM).
Dr. Steinbaum says that exercising in this heart rate zone for 30 minutes, five times a week “can help with cardiovascular benefits, decreasing blood pressure, decreasing body fat and improving sugar metabolism.”
Another method to determine your MAF heart rate, Darnbrough shares, is the aerobic training zone created by kinesiologist Phil Maffetone. “This is calculated by taking 180 minus your age,” keeping in mind additional adjustments based on your health and any conditions, including if “you are on medication, frequently get colds, etc., as these can reduce your maximum aerobic function.” Using the same age (30), this formula would put your ideal heart rate for training at 150.
Both experts emphasize the importance of acknowledging your personal health and resting heart rate. “Understanding how fit you are can help guide how high your heart rate should be,” says Dr. Steinbaum. “With a resting heart rate greater than 70, your fitness level is most likely not as high as a person with a resting heart rate of 50. Depending on your baseline fitness, your heart rate zone will differ.”
If your resting heart rate is on the higher side, Dr. Steinbaum recommends starting at a target heart rate closer to 50 percent of your maximum, rather than aiming for 70 percent right off the bat.
Get a heart rate monitor
Fortunately, you don’t have to drop a ton of money to start tracking your heart rate. A decent one (typically a chest strap or a wrist wearable) will typically run you about $50, though there are some less expensive options. You could also opt for an Apple Watch or Fitbit, depending on preferences and budget.
There is a free option if you’re ready to do some counting and calculating. Simply take your pulse at your wrist, and count the beats for 15 seconds. Multiply that by four, and that’s your current BPM. You’ll have to take this several times, at varying levels of exertion, in order to get a read on your heart rate.
Try it out for 30 minutes
Test out what it feels like to have your heart rate in different zones—carefully! “Beginning at a heart rate zone that allows you to sustain the exercise for 30 minutes without fatigue or exhaustion is critical,” says Dr. Steinbaum. This is going to be your sweet spot.
“If your heart rate is too high during exercise, then it will be unsustainable and necessary to decrease your effort to decrease your peak heart rate,” she says. “Start with a shorter, 20-minute beginner class and see how your heart rate responds.”
Want to jump into your ideal heart rate zone? Try this beginner rebounder class:
If you’re on a machine like the Peloton, “Pay attention to the cadence and the resistance to understand how to ride at your optimal heart rate,” says Dr. Steinbaum. “Begin slowly and increase your cadence and resistance every three to four weeks based on how you feel, how quickly your heart rate goes up and how easy it is for you to sustain the exercise.”
Do. Not. Push. It.
“More is not better!” warns Dr. Steinbaum. “Keeping your heart rate at a high intensity zone—greater than 75 percent [of your personal max]—can lead to overtraining, and actually be detrimental in reaching your cardiovascular goals,” she says. Don’t push yourself too hard!
“High intensity interval training [HIIT] can be beneficial, with episodes of reaching high heart rates along with periods of moderate intensity heart rates.” But!—“This is recommended for athletes who are in better physical fitness,” she says. “Be careful of your joints and muscle overuse and be conscious that overexertion can lead to injury.”
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