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Heart Rate Terms You Need To Know For Optimal Fitness

Updated on January 3, 2013

The changes in your heart rate are the easiest and most effective way to measure how hard to exercise and when you should lighten up. If you want to exercise effectively and prevent injury, you need to understand certain basic terms and concepts about how your individual heart rate varies. The following is a list of the essential terms surrounding heart rate and how you can use them.

HR – Heart Rate: this is the rate at which your heart beats to pump blood around your body. When the body requires more blood the heart rate will increase. So obviously, when you are working out harder, your heart rate will rise. However, when your body is doing other processes, for example trying to fight off sickness, your heart rate can also increase and trying to work out at the same intensity will put extra strain on your heart. Therefore, it is better for your long-term health not to workout at a set pace, but at a set heart rate. This will stop you from overworking your body when it is trying to repair itself.

BPM – Beats Per Minute: Heart rate is always measured by how many times your heart beats in a single minute. Therefore, if you don’t have a heart rate monitor you can find out your own heart rate by feeling for a pulse point. The clearest is in your neck, either side of your throat (please note, do not press too hard or you can reduce the blood flowing to your brain and make yourself pass out. This is not good, in case you were wondering.) With your index and middle fingers, feel for the pulse and against a watch count how many beats you can feel in 6 seconds, starting with ‘zero’ as your first count. Then multiple the number by 10 to get beats per minute. This is not completely accurate, but will give you a good indication.

Resting Heart Rate: Your resting heart rate is a good indicator of how efficiently your body is working. It is the measure of how much your heart needs to beat to maintain basic life systems when you aren't moving. It is best to take this first thing in the morning while you are still lying in bed. Measure your resting heart rate using the method above. Generally, the number will be higher if you are unfit or currently unhealthy. For a basic indication of the ranges: Below 60 = fit, 60-80 = average, 80-100 = high but still okay, and 101+ is not good and you should talk to your doctor.

Max HR - Maximum Heart Rate: This is the fastest your heart can beat as you push it as hard as you can. It is useful to know this as a lot of programs ask you to workout at a set percentage of your max. The most common formula for working out your max is 220 – your age. So if you are 30, the formula suggests your Max HR is 190. A lot of people have rejected this as not reflecting individual differences. Therefore, if possible, it is best to perform some testing in the gym with a partner to work out your own Max HR. (steps on how to do so are outlined in my blog post on Max Heart Rate.)

RHR – Reserve Heart Rate (not to be confused with resting heart rate): this is the range between your max and your resting that you can workout at. Some exercise programs do not look at percentage of max but percentage of reserve, as this takes into account personal differences in resting heart rate. It is important when following a program to make sure whether they are talking about % of max or % of reserve, as the numbers can be different. (For how to work out this out see my blog post on Reserve and Target Heart Rates).

Maximum Aerobic Heart Rate: This can also be referred to as your anaerobic threshold. It is the rate at which your body starts using more anaerobic (without oxygen) methods of energy conversion and less aerobic (with oxygen). The body uses anaerobic conversion when it requires energy fast, but more by-products such as lactic acid are produced and the body cannot maintain this for a long time. In the past it was argued that working out below your maximum aerobic heart rate burned more fat and therefore was better for weight loss. This is debated now as working at a higher rate still burns more calories, regardless of where they come from. However, it is true that working out below this HR does put less stress on your body, but can still increase fitness. Recovery workouts should aim to be below your Max Aerobic HR.

It is worth taking a week to test out your different rates and understand how your heart responds to stress. This is very individualistic, so knowing your own personal responses will help you to create a program that works best for you. And as always, if you feel dizzy or have any chest pain, please see a doctor.


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