Heart Zone Training

Use the 5 Heart Rate Zones for Effective Exercise

Pulse Monitor Fitness Watch
Pulse Monitor Fitness Watch. © alexey_boldin / Depositphotos.com

Are you exercising at the right intensity? Cardiovascular exercise relies on frequency, intensity and duration for effectiveness. We know how often we exercise and for how long, but you need to know your heart rate to judge your intensity. Take your heart rate five minutes after the start of your exercise session and take it again before you go into your cool down.

How to Measure Your Heart Rate via Your Pulse

You can find your pulse at your neck (carotid artery) or wrist (radial artery).

Use a finger rather than your thumb to find the artery and the pulse.

You will need a watch or app that displays seconds. You can take your pulse for 6 seconds and multiply by 10 to get the beats per minute (bpm). For example, if you counted 8 beats in 6 seconds, your bpm is 8 x 10 = 80. You could also count it for a full 60 seconds, but it usually is not easy or convenient to do that while still exercising. Or you can increase the accuracy by counting for 12 seconds and multiplying by 5, but doing math while exercising may be a challenge.
How to Take Your Exercise Pulse

You can also use an app with your cell phone, such as the Azumio Instant Heart Rate app. It uses your cell phone's camera flash to read your pulse from your finger.

Measuring Your Heart Rate with a Heart Monitor

Heart rate monitors typically use a chest strap to measure your heart rate. These gadgets range in price from $40 and up, and are the most accurate method.

They transmit the data to a wrist unit or a mobile app so you can see your heart rate throughout your workout. Models include many other features with increasing price, such as tracking your heart rate zones, stopwatch features, calories burned and more. Other kinds of heart rate monitors include hand grip pulse monitors on treadmills, and pulse monitors where you place one or two fingers on a sensor for a reading.

Before You Buy a Heart Rate Monitor

Heart Zone Training

Are you training too intensely, or are you not putting enough into your workout to get the best results? If you know your maximum heart rate (MHR) you can use heart zone training to gear your workout to the correct intensity.

Maximum Heart Rate

Your maximum heart rate is as fast as your heart can beat. This varies for each person, but age is generally used as a guide for what your maximum heart rate is likely to be. A more individualized number can be provided by testing by an athletic trainer, or as a function of some of the more expensive heart rate monitors. Our heart rate calculator is age-based and you can use it to see your maximum heart rate and also to find out bpm for target heart rates based on percentages of the maximum heart rate.

Five Heart Rate Zones and How to Use Them in Your Workouts

You can get different fitness benefits by exercising in different heart rate zone. If you take your maximum heart rate you will find these five exercise zones in percentage ranges of maximum heart rate. In each zone you will feel a different level of exertion and your body will be burning a different percentage of carbohydrate, protein and fat.

Healthy Heart Zone

  • This zone is 50 to 60% of your maximum heart rate. This is an easy and comfortable zone to exercise in.
  • You will be able to carry on a full conversation in this zone, although you may be breathing a little heavier than usual.
  • Walkers are often in this zone unless they press themselves to walk faster. Fitness walkers may alternate days of walking in this zone with days of exercising in the higher heart rate zones, to give a recovery/easy day.
  • Your workout in this zone is less intense and won't give the most cardiorespiratory training benefits. But studies have shown that it works to help decrease body fat, blood pressure and cholesterol.
  • In this zone, the body derives it energy by burning 10% carbohydrates, 5% protein and 85% fat.
  • Healthy Heart Walking Workout

Fitness Heart Rate Zone

  • This zone is from 60 to 70% of your maximum heart rate.
  • You will be breathing heavier but will still be able to speak in short sentences.
  • You burn more calories per minute than in the healthy heart zone because the exercise is a little more intense - you are going faster and therefore covering more distance. The calories burned depend on the distance you cover and your weight more than any other factors.
  • In this zone, your body fuels itself with 85% fat, 5% protein, and 10% carbohydrate.

Aerobic Heart Rate Zone

  • This zone is from 70-80% of your maximum heart rate.
  • You will be breathing very hard and able only to speak in short phrases.
  • This is the zone to aim for when training for endurance. It spurs your body to improve your circulatory system by building new blood vessels, and increases your heart and lung capacity.
  • Aiming for 20 to 60 minutes in this zone is believed to give the best fitness training benefits.
  • You burn 50% of your calories from fat, 50% from carbohydrate, and less than 1% from protein.
  • With the increase in intensity, you burn more calories in the same amount of time, as you are covering more distance in that same time. Calories burned depend most on distance and your weight. If you go further in the same time, you burn more calories per minute.
  • You may not be able to achieve this heart rate by walking, you may have to use racewalking technique or switch to jogging to get into this heart rate zone.
  • Aerobic Walking Workout

Anaerobic Zone - Threshold Zone

  • This zone is 80 to 90% of your maximum heart rate.
  • You will be unable to speak except a single, gasped word at a time.
  • This intense exercise will improve the amount of oxygen you can consume - your VO2 maximum.
  • This exertion level takes you to the limit where your body begins to produce lactic acid. Racewalkers use this zone to build their ability to go even faster.
  • Workouts in this heart rate zone should be in the 10 to 20 minute range, or part of an interval training workout.
  • You burn more calories per minute than with the lower heart rate workouts, as you are covering more distance per minute.
  • The body burns 85% carbohydrates, 15% fat and less than 1% protein in this zone.
  • You may not be able to achieve this heart rate by walking, you may need to use the racewalking technique or switch to jogging/running.

Red-Line Zone

  • The top zone is from 90 to 100% of your maximum heart rate. You can't go any higher, and most people can't stay in this zone for more than a few minutes.
  • You will be unable to speak except for gasping single words.
  • This zone should only be used for short bursts during interval training, where you work intensely for a minute and then drop back down to a lower intensity for several minutes, and repeat.
  • You should consult with your doctor to ensure you can work out at such a high heart rate safely.
  • While you burn lots of calories per minute in this zone, 90% of them are carbohydrates, 10% fats, and less than 1% protein.

Varying Your Workout

Which zone should you work out in? It is best to vary your workouts for length and intensity, and allow a recovery day between days of intense exercise in the aerobic, anaerobic, and red-line zone. Racewalker Dave McGovern has a suggested weekly walking workout schedule which varies the workouts for intensity and heart rate to improve speed, endurance and distance capacity.

Sources: Chad Tackett, Global Health and Fitness, 1998. Dave McGovern racewalking workshop, 1999.

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