One of the most reliable indicators that you’re pushing yourself hard enough while exercising is your heart rate. Heart rate is the number of times your heart beats per minute, both while at rest (called “resting heart rate”) and while exercising (called “training heart rate”). Measuring your heart rate can help you gauge the intensity of your aerobic activity.
If you’ve been diagnosed with a heart condition or if your doctor has told you that you have risk factors for cardiovascular disease, the American Heart Association (AHA) recommends that you talk to a healthcare professional before you start measuring your heart rate while exercising. Your doctor can advise you on which exercises are safe and appropriate for your condition and fitness level and can determine if you need to be monitored during physical activity. They can also help determine what your target heart rate should be.
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. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends using the spot on your wrist artery, just below your thumb. This is called the radial pulse.
To measure your heart rate, gently press the tips of your index and middle fingers—not your thumb—over the blood vessels on your wrist. Count the beats you feel for a full minute (or for 30 seconds and multiply the count by two, or by 10 seconds and multiply by six).
Alternatively, you can use a heart rate monitor, which determines your heart rate automatically. It can even be programmed to tell you when you are 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 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.
Though your doctor can help determine the best target heart rate for you, the AHA developed some guidelines that you can use to determine your general target zone based on your age. According to the CDC, moderate-intensity workouts should be closer to the low end of these ranges, while 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: 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 if you should be using 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. If your heart rate during activity is higher than it should be based on the guidelines above and your doctor’s instructions, slow down your pace and effort level. If it’s lower, work harder to ensure that you’re getting the benefits of the exercise.
The AHA recommends starting out 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 keeping an eye on your ideal heart rate.