Heart rate is the number of times your heart beats per minute. You can measure it while at rest (called “resting heart rate”) and while exercising (called “training heart rate”). Your heart rate is one of the most reliable indicators that you’re pushing yourself hard enough while exercising.

If you’ve been diagnosed with a heart condition or if your doctor has told you that you have risk factors for cardiovascular disease, talk to a doctor before you start measuring your heart rate while exercising. They can tell you which exercises are safe and appropriate for your condition and fitness level. They’ll also determine what your target heart rate should be and if you need to be monitored during physical activity.

It’s helpful to know some basics so you’re more informed when speaking with your doctor. Below are some important things to know about your heart rate.

How to Measure Heart Rate

Measuring your heart rate is as simple as checking your pulse. You can find your pulse at your wrist, neck, or chest. Try measuring your radial pulse, which is on your wrist artery, just below your thumb.

To measure your heart rate, gently press the tips of your index and middle fingers over the blood vessels on your wrist. Make sure not to use your thumb, because it has its own pulse. Count the beats you feel for a full minute. You can also count for 30 seconds and multiply the count by two, or count for 10 seconds and multiply by six.

Alternatively, you can use a heart rate monitor, which determines your heart rate automatically. You can program it to tell you when you’re above or below your target range.

Start with Resting Heart Rate

You should test your resting heart rate before measuring your training heart rate. The best time to test your resting heart rate is first thing in the morning, before you’ve gotten out of bed, and ideally after a good night’s sleep.

Using the technique described above, determine your resting heart rate and record this number to share with your doctor. You might try checking your resting heart rate for a few days in a row to confirm that your measurement is accurate.

According to the American Heart Association (AHA), the average resting heart rate is between 60 and 80 beats per minute. However, this number rises with age and is usually lower for people with higher fitness levels.

Ideal Heart Rate for Exercise

After you’ve gotten the hang of heart rate measurement, you can begin to calculate and monitor your target exercising heart rate. If you’re using the manual method of heart rate measurement, you’ll need to stop exercising briefly to take your pulse. If you’re using a heart rate monitor, you can continue your workout while keeping an eye on your monitor.

Your doctor can help determine the best target heart rate for you, or you can use general target zone guidelines to determine your target rate based on your age. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, moderate-intensity workouts should be closer to the low end of these ranges. The higher end of the range should be reserved only for high-intensity, vigorous workouts.

  • 40 to 45 years: 88 to 153 beats per minute
  • 50 to 55 years: 83 to 145 beats per minute
  • 60 to 65 years: 78 to 136 beats per minute
  • 70 years and up: 75 to 128 beats per minute

Note that some blood pressure medications can lower your maximum heart rate, affecting your target zone rate. If you’re taking medication for your heart condition, ask your doctor whether you should use a lower target zone rate.

Adjusting Your Activity Level

Once you’ve determined your ideal heart rate for exercise, it’s important to use this information to help keep the intensity level of your workouts in check. Slow down your pace and effort level if your heart rate during activity is higher than it should be based on your doctor’s instructions and the guidelines above. If it’s lower, work harder to ensure that you’re getting the benefits of the exercise.

Start slowly during the first few weeks of working out, aiming for the lower end of your target zone. You can then build up gradually to the higher end of your target zone. With a little practice and guidance from your healthcare team, you’ll soon be able to make the most of your exercise routine by measuring your ideal heart rate.