The fitness market is flooded with apps, watches, and other wearable devices that measure heart rate. Heart rate is one of the many vitals that doctors consider, but does it help a layman to know his or her heart rate during a workout? Fitness experts are using a percentage of maximum heart rate to determine the true intensity of workouts. How can these personal metrics be used to get the most out of every workout?

Heart rate measures intensity

Heart rate during a workout matters because it is one of the most accurate ways to determine the true impact of the workout on your health. Especially for beginners, exercise can be physically taxing, but being tired at the end of a workout does not necessarily mean that the workout has had any real benefit on the body. Many people feel discouraged after doing months of strenuous workouts that are not resulting in any loss of fat or gain of muscle. Tracking heart rate can help people at all fitness levels avoid this pitfall.

To measure heart rate during exercise, a person must first determine his or her maximum heart rate. For a healthy person, exercises with different intensities should reach corresponding thresholds for the percentage of maximum heart rate. For example, during recovery, a person should only be pumping 50-60% of the maximum heart rate. When doing something more vigorous, such as Zumba, a person should be using 80-90% of his or her maximum heart rate. Some refer to different heart rate levels as zones. Others refer to the percentage of total heart rate based on the type of exercise that causes it, such as resting, vigorous or moderate.

How to calculate maximum heart rate

Maximum heart rate is the highest rate at which a person’s heart should beat, even during sessions of intense exertion. Maximum heart rate is different for each person. There are two methods of calculating maximum heart rate by hand. Both methods are based on age. For the purpose of example, a hypothetical thirty-year-old will be used. Subtracting a person’s age from 220 is one way to determine maximum heart rate (e.g. 220-30= maximum heart rate of 190). Experts have come up with a newer, more accurate method. In most cases, this method results in a lower maximum heart rate. Start by multiplying age by 0.7, and subtract that number from 207 (e.g. 30 x 0.7=21 207-21= maximum heart rate of 186). As the example calculations show, the result of both formulas is close.

Leveraging heart rate during your workout

A person’s heart rate should reflect the intensity level of exercise he or she is participating in. For example, vigorous exercise should use 90-100% of a person’s maximum heart rate. The thirty-year-old exemplified earlier should have a heart rate of 167-186 during vigorous exercise under the newest calculation method. If the actual heart rate is significantly higher or lower than it should be, this is a sign that the workout is either not difficult enough or too challenging, either of which will not produce desired results.

Personal health and level of fitness must be taken into account when determining the maximum heart rate.  There are some medicines that will increase or decrease a person’s maximum heart rate. It should also be noted that, with the exception of lab testing, calculations of maximum heart rate are not always exactly accurate. For some people, true maximum heart rate can be up to twenty beats higher or lower than the number a calculation produces.  A person with unique reasons for a higher or lower maximum heart rate should work closely with a personal trainer or other fitness professionals to determine a training regimen that is both safe and effective.