Getting to the Target: Heart Rate Zones

Author: Shannon Miller Lifestyle

February is Heart Health Month, and what better way to celebrate the heart than to learn a little more about how it works in relation to daily life and exercise?

The term “target heart rate” is important to exercise, but it seems so illusive. How can we tell if we are really in the zone for optimum health?

What defines the heart rate?

The heart rate is determined through beats per minute.

  • To take an accurate heart rate, place two fingers (not the thumb) flat on the side of the neck.

How do I check my heart rate?

Watch a second hand on a clock or use a timer to count the beats for ten seconds. Multiply this number by six to get an approximate minute of heart beats for your heart rate in the present moment. To be more accurate, count a full minute of beats.

What is a resting heart rate?

In order to understand target heart rate, first understand resting heart rate. A true resting heart rate is the rate at which the heart beats consistently at the lowest level of activity. For most accurate calculations, the heart rate should be taken as the body awakens in the morning. It is best to reserve this test for a day in which no alarm clock is used. The alarm clock can jolt the body, creating a sudden increase in heart rate. Take the pulse instead in a lying position, on a slow morning. For even better results, take the pulse for a few days and average the numbers. Most adults are anywhere from 40-100 beats per minute at rest. Well-conditioned adults usually fall on the lower end of the spectrum, though a person below 60 should check with a physician to rule out a heart condition. A person above 100 should also check with a physician to rule out a heart condition or heart disease. (Dr. Edward Laskowski,

 What about Target Heart Rate or Maximal Heart Rate?

The heart will continue to increase in pace through daily activities, especially during heart stressing moments or exercise. Ideally, we want to stay in an active but not overstressed zone during exercise.

  • The old way of checking on this was through a formula of “220 – age = maximal heart rate”.
  • Then, the max heart rate was multiplied by 0.6 to 0.9 for a safe and efficient zone in which to exercise.

More recently, professional organizations such as The American Council on Exercise ( have moved away from using this formula, because the research did not show that it necessarily kept people within their personal wellness zones.

Every person is different, including where their heart rate starts, where their bodies work efficiently, and where they can then overstress their hearts.

What about using RPE?

The new way is simply to use a Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE). On a scale from 1-10, how does the exerciser feel? 1 would be resting, and 10 would be physically impossible. The idea of #10 is the idea of the maximal heart rate. To gauge the RPE at any given point, take about 20 seconds to have a talk with someone. Personal Trainer Michelle Wadley of “I Wanna Be Fit Now” in Lake Jackson, TX, says “I use the formulas to show a person a range, but I really train by using RPE….There are so many variables to consider…that RPE seems to be a better choice.”

 The RPE Scale, In general:

1:  talking freely, not noticing any change in respiration or heart rate

2-3:  starting to feel a change, but still talking very easily

4-5:  talking becomes a little more difficult as respiration increases

6-7:  conversation is broken and difficult

8-9:  conversation is close to impossible

10:  words are not possible

(RPE Scale,

SML TIP:  Exercising at a RPE 10 is not desirable.  In fact, breathlessness getting in the upper numbers should not be maintained in normal exercise.This is not only dangerous, but makes the body very inefficient in calorie usage.

More desirable in regular exercise would be the central numbers, where the exerciser notices a change in heart rate and an increase in difficulty.

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