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Get the most out of your ex­er­cise by lis­ten­ing to your heart rate.

F or the av­er­age Joe look­ing to stay fit, com­mon-sense stan­dards like “20 min­utes of phys­i­cal ex­er­cise a day” work well enough. For those more se­ri­ous about their ex­er­cise regime, how­ever, more data and more feed­back can al­ways be use­ful. And to­day, with the ubiq­uity of suit­ablye­quipped fit­ness track­ers like the Fitbit bracelets or smartwatches like the Samsung Gear se­ries, ev­ery­body can in­cor­po­rate heart-rate mon­i­tor­ing into their ex­er­cise plans.

The short ver­sion of this ap­proach is that you ad­just the amount of ef­fort you ex­pend when you ex­er­cise (or dur­ing var­i­ous stages of ex­er­cise) so that your heart rate falls in a spe­cific zone, with each zone in­di­cat­ing a per­cent­age of your max­i­mum heart rate.

Now, be­fore we go on any fur­ther, please note again that this whole fit­ness con­cept deals with per­cent­ages of your max­i­mum heart rate— which is de­fined as the high­est heart rate you can achieve through ex­er­cise. Ideally, this would be tested by a phys­i­ol­o­gist, but the Amer­i­can Col­lege of Ex­er­cises has de­vised a sim­ple equa­tion you can use: 208 – (0.7 x age). So, a 30-year-old man would have a max­i­mum heart rate of 208 – (0.7 x 30) = 187 beats per minute or bpm. It should be noted that this method is not 100-per­cent ac­cu­rate, though.

Step Into the Zone

Af­ter you’ve de­ter­mined your max­i­mum heart rate, it’s time to look at the afore­men­tioned zones. This par­tic­u­lar di­vi­sion of zones, by the way, is based on guide­lines de­vel­oped by Joe Dowdell, owner of Peak Per­for­mance. Ba­si­cally, there are five dif­fer­ent zones:

Zone 1: Com­fort­able ef­fort, for warm­ing up, cool­ing down and re­cov­ery; 50 to 60 per­cent

Zone 2: Av­er­age ef­fort, best used to train aer­o­bic main­te­nance; 60 to 70 per­cent

Zone 3: Above av­er­age ef­fort, ideal to train up aer­o­bic ca­pac­ity; 70 to 80 per­cent

Zone 4: Hard ef­fort, good for main­tain­ing anaer­o­bic ca­pac­ity; 80 to 90 per­cent

Zone 5: Ba­si­cally all out, which is how you de­velop anaer­o­bic ca­pac­ity; 90 to 100 per­cent

So, if you’re sim­ply look­ing to burn fat and stay in shape, daily ex­er­cise rou­tines in Zone 2 should suf­fice. If you’re look­ing at join­ing a run­ner’s club, how­ever, you might want to ad­just your ex­er­cise to in­clude time in Zone 3. Sprint­ers and pow­er­lifters, on the other hand, would do well to stay mostly in Zones 4 and 5 as these sports de­pend on fast twitch mus­cles that op­er­ate us­ing anaer­o­bic meta­bolic sys­tems.


All that be­ing said, hav­ing a well-rounded ex­er­cise plan is highly rec­om­mended no mat­ter what your fit­ness goals are. On the flip side, fo­cus­ing on one or two zones based on your pri­mary fit­ness goals will go a long way to help you ac­tu­ally achieve those goals.

Speak­ing of well-rounded, heart-rate mon­i­tor­ing can also be used to de­ter­mine ideal rest­ing pe­ri­ods be­tween ex­er­cise ses­sions. You may have seen train­ing pro­grams that in­clude ex­act rest pe­ri­ods be­tween sets or in­ter­vals (for in­ter­val train­ing, ob­vi­ously). The prob­lem with this ap­proach is that it doesn’t take into ac­count each per­son’s in­di­vid­ual re­cov­ery abil­ity, which might vary due to age, over­all fit­ness level and var­i­ous phys­i­cal con­di­tions.

A per­son’s heart rate, how­ever, can be a good in­di­ca­tor of his readi­ness to con­tinue ex­er­cis­ing. So, in­stead of fol­low­ing a fixed stan­dard or sim­ply tak­ing a guess, you can sim­ply rest un­til your heart rate re­turns close to your rest­ing level. Around 110 bpm (the nor­mal rest­ing heart rate for adults is around 60 to 100) would be a good point to re­sume ex­er­cis­ing.

IS It for You?

Heart-rate train­ing used to be the do­main of ath­letes. Now, as the tech­nol­ogy be­comes more read­ily avail­able, it has be­come vi­able for just about any­body. Should you con­sider adopt­ing this method? The best an­swer would be “why not?” As al­ways, it’s highly rec­om­mended that you con­sult with a pro­fes­sional fit­ness in­struc­tor or with your physi­cian. And, of course, a sim­pler com­mon­sense to ex­er­cis­ing will al­ways work just as well. Still, es­pe­cially con­sid­er­ing how easy it is to get a heart-rate mon­i­tor-equipped gad­get these days, cre­at­ing this kind of cus­tom-based train­ing pro­gram can be a su­perb so­lu­tion.


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