Blog · Fitness

Reaching your target heart rate

Last week I talked a bit about your maximum heart rate and the different heart rate zones you reach during exercise. To recap, there are three main zones:

  • Peak Zone (85% and up to maximum heart rate). This is very intense.
  • Cardio Zone (70-84% of your maximum heart rate). This is moderate to intense.
  • Fat Burn Zone (50-69% of your maximum heart rate). This is low to moderate.

Now let’s talk about your target heart rate and how that fits into the different heart rate zones. Depending on the activity you are doing and the amount of effort expected to complete that activity, you can determine how hard your heart should be working to pump oxygenated blood throughout your body in terms of high effort, moderate effort, and low effort. This depends on your fitness level and is different for everybody.

Let’s take three somewhat normal, daily activities and break them down to determine the target heart rate zone of each. We’ll figure it out for a young woman (25 years old with maximum heart rate of 195 BPM) we’ll call Anne and a middle-aged woman (50 years old with a maximum heart rate of 170 BPM) we’ll call Hannah. Assume they are both in good health and have no issue accomplishing the tasks defined. First, let’s calculate the heart rate zones for each woman.

Anne’s heart rate zones:

  • Peak Zone: 165 BPM
  • Cardio Zone: 137-164 BPM
  • Fat Burn Zone: 98-136 BPM

Hannah’s heart rate zones:

  • Peak Zone: 145 BPM
  • Cardio Zone: 119-144 BPM
  • Fat Burn Zone: 85-118 BPM

Activity 1: Scrubbing the bathtub

Believe it or not, when you vigorously move your arms while scrubbing a surface, you are working your heart pretty hard! Assuming it takes several minutes to finish the job, you should expect your heart rate to reach the cardio zone. Anne’s heart rate reaches 145 BPM (cardio zone) and Hannah’s reaches 130 BPM (cardio zone).

Activity 2: Sprinting after a small child headed toward the street

When you see a child or animal headed for danger, you don’t dawdle. You get to them as fast as you can! Any time you sprint or exert maximum effort, even for a short period of time, your heart rate should reach your peak zone. For Anne, this is 165 BPM (peak zone). For Hannah, this is 145 BPM (peak zone).

Activity 3: Getting the mail

Walking to the mailbox should not be a difficult task. Even if you walk quickly there and back, the effort required should not be anything more than moderate. In this case, Anne’s heart rate is 100 BPM (fat burn zone) and Hannah’s is 90 BPM (fat burn zone).

Putting it to practice

So, how do you know what your target heart rate should be? It’s better to think of it terms of a target heart rate zone. To know what zone to hit, you need to know the level of effort it SHOULD take to complete an activity. When you know the effort it should take to complete an activity, you know which zone should be targeted. When you know which zone should be targeted, you can then calculate how much your heart rate should increase. If while performing that activity your heart rate stays low then you should increase your intensity. On the other hand, if your heart rate peaks when it shouldn’t, then you should decrease your intensity.

target heart rate

Here are some activities that are considered low to moderate. When performing these tasks, your heart rate should stay in the fat burn zone.

  • Walking 3-3.5 miles per hour (17-20 minutes per mile)
  • Bicycling less than 10 miles per hour
  • Gardening
  • Dancing
  • Water aerobics
  • Canoeing

Here are some activities that are considered moderate to intense. When performing these tasks, your heart rate should stay in the cardio zone.

  • Running at least 5 miles per hour (12 minute miles)
  • Walking 4-4.5 miles per hour (12-15 minutes per mile)
  • Bicycling more than 10 miles per hour
  • Chopping fire wood
  • Swimming freestyle
  • Aerobics

Here are some activities that are considered very intense. When performing these tasks, your heart rate should reach your peak zone.

  • Sprinting
  • HIIT training

If an activity should only take low to moderate effort but it gets your heart rate into your cardio zone, then you need to improve your heart health by doing regular physical activity. Simple tasks should not overtax your heart. Before you get started with regular exercise, see your doctor to be cleared for physical activity. Follow your doctors recommendations and seek the help of a professional fitness coach to get started.

Again, if an activity should take low to moderate effort but it gets your heart rate into your cardio zone (and you’ve been cleared by your doctor to exercise) then exercise knowing that, for you, that activity is NOT easy and will take more effort. Expect your heart to reach the cardio zone each time you do it. As you continue to exercise, you should see your heart rate come down. Eventually, the task that was once difficult will become easy and your heart will rejoice!

If you have a condition that requires you to keep your heart rate under a certain point, then you have to know which activities you can safely complete and which activities you should avoid. For example, in pregnancy, your heart rate should not exceed 140 BPM. If going for a brisk walk pushes your heart rate to 145 BPM then you need to slow down. However, if you can complete a circuit and keep your heart rate under 140 BPM then go for it! Do it with enthusiasm.

Let’s flip the coin for a minute. If you’re walking to lose weight and get healthier but your heart rate never gets out of the fat burn zone, then you’re not working hard enough. For weightloss, you want to target the cardio zone. You either need to push yourself harder and pick up the pace or choose an activity that is more strenuous. You can’t be lackadaisical and get results.

FitTip: It is important to know how to calculate your maximum heart rate and your different heart rate zones. For safe and effective exercise, you need to know how much your heart rate increases during various activities. This will help you know when to push harder and when to hold back. If you want to lose weight, you have to get your heart rate up during exercise. Target the cardio zone for most of your workouts.

Use these formulas to calculate your maximum heart rate and heart rate zones:

  • Maximum Heart Rate (MHR): 220 – age
  • Peak Zone: MHR x .85
  • Cardio Zone: (MHR x .70) to (MHR x .84)
  • Fat Burn Zone: (MHR x .50) to (MHR x .69)
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