Heart rate is the number of times your heart beats per minute. You can measure it while at rest (resting heart rate) and while exercising (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 problem or if you have any other risk factors of cardiovascular disease, talk to a doctor before you start exercising and trying to establish a training heart rate range. 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 over your wrist or neck. Try measuring your radial artery pulse, which is felt over the lateral part your wrist, just below the thumb side of your hand.

To measure your heart rate, gently press the tips of your index and middle fingers over this blood vessel in your wrist. Make sure not to use your thumb, because it has its own pulse and may cause you to miscount. 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 — 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 100 beats per minute. However, this number may rise with age and is usually lower for people with higher physical fitness levels. The AHA notes that physically active people, such as athletes, may have a resting heart rate as low as 40 beats per minute.

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 exercise heart rate based on your age.

According to the AHA, moderate-intensity workouts should be closer to the lower end of the target heart rate range that correlates with your age. Within the higher end of the range is the target heart rate for high-intensity, vigorous workouts.

The target heart rate zones noted below are based on what is equal to 50 to 85 percent of the average maximum heart rate for each stated age, and the average maximum heart rate is based on the calculation of 220 minus years of age.

Please be aware that the American Heart Association states that these figures are averages to be used as a general guide. If you feel this guide doesn’t fit your personal exercise heart rate target for moderate or vigorous exercise, your doctor will be able to work with you on an individual basis to help determine the target heart rate range that is best for you.

 Target heart rate zoneAverage maximum heart rate
25 years100 to 170 beats per minute220 beats per minute
30 years95 to 162 beats per minute190 beats per minute
35 years93 to 157 beats per minute185 beats per minute
40 years90 to 153 beats per minute180 beats per minute
45 years88 to 149 beats per minute175 beats per minute
50 years85 to 145 beats per minute170 beats per minute
55 years83 to 140 beats per minute165 beats per minute
60 years80 to 136 beats per minute160 beats per minute
65 years78 to 132 beats per minute155 beats per minute
70 years and up75 to 128 beats per minute150 beats per minute
 

Note that certain medications that are taken to reduce blood pressure can also lower your resting and maximum heart rates, with the latter affecting your calculation for target zone rate. If you’re taking medication therapy for a heart or other cardiovascular condition, ask your doctor whether you should use a lower target heart rate zone for exercising.

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 that it should be, 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.

If you’re not sure where to start, check out these videos of great workouts under 20 minutes.