How to Measure Heart Rate for Exercise

Lose weight faster by checking your heart rate during exercise

check heart rate during exercise
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Do you monitor your exercise heart rate? You should. For most people, exercise heart rate is a measurement of exercise intensity. When you exercise at the right intensity you can burn more calories and lose weight faster. 

There are several different ways to check your exercise heart rate and monitor your workout intensity. You can use perceived exertion, measure your heart rate manually or use a heart rate monitor.

Check Exercise Intensity With Perceived Exertion

The easiest way to know how hard you are working is to evaluate your rating of perceived exertion. To use this method, you simply apply a number to the difficulty level of the exercise. It's easiest to use a scale of 1-10, with a rating of ten indicating maximum exertion and a rating of one indicating complete rest.

In some fitness settings, you may hear exercisers refer to the Borg Scale of Perceived Exertion. The Borg scale ranges from 6-20, with six indicating rest and 20 indicating maximum exertion. This scale, developed by Gunnar Borg, offers descriptive labels for the different levels.

Borg Scale of Perceived Exertion

6 No exertion at all
7 Extremely light
8
9 Very light
10
11 Light
12
13 Somewhat hard
14
15 Hard (heavy)
16
17 Very hard
18
19 Extremely hard
20 Maximal exertion

Some fitness pros theorize that if you add a zero to your Borg perceived exertion rating, it corresponds to your estimated exercise heart rate.

 

Pros and Cons of Using Perceived Exertion

The great thing about using perceived exertion to measure exercise intensity is that it requires no equipment. It's easy to do, and doesn't require you to stop your activity to gauge how hard you are working.

The drawback is that perceived exertion is not always accurate.

In fact, several studies have shown that we have a tendency to underestimate how hard we are working. This happens more often in people who are overweight or obese. Other factors such as depression, anxiety, and energy level can have an impact as well.

If you choose to use perceived exertion to measure the intensity level and effectiveness of your workouts, consider adding a heart rate measurement occasionally to check the accuracy of your rating.

Measure Exercise Intensity With Heart Rate 

To get a more accurate measurement of your workout intensity, most exercisers measure heart rate manually or with a device. 

  • Heart rate monitor device. A heart rate monitor displays your heart rate based on a reading from your wrist or from a strap that you wear around your chest. The number is displayed on a wristwatch or on the exercise equipment that you might be using. Monitors range in price from $40 to over $200 depending on the different measurements that you want the device to record.
  • Manual pulse. To manually take your pulse, you need to stop exercising. Find your pulse on the thumb side of your wrist. Apply gentle pressure and count the beats that you feel for 10 seconds. Multiply the number by six to get your heart rate in beats per minute.

    Remember that a higher number isn't always better! If you are healthy enough for vigorous exercise, you should schedule some workouts that are hard, some that are moderate and some that are easy during the week. This allows your body to burn maximum calories without too much wear and tear.

    Pros and Cons of Using Heart Rate to Measure Exercise Intensity

    Measuring heart rate is considered to be a more accurate method of evaluating exercise intensity than perceived exertion. But that doesn't mean it is always accurate. Several factors including hydration level, medication, climate, and exercise type can affect heart rate.

    The other downside to using heart rate is that in some situations you have to stop exercising to check your pulse or wristwatch. During the time it takes to do this, your heart rate can drop, making your final measurement slightly lower than it should be.

    The Best Way To Measure Exercise Intensity

    The best way to make sure you are getting an accurate measurement of your exercise intensity is to combine the two methods. During your workouts, measure your heart rate with a monitor or by taking your pulse and compare it to your rating of perceived exertion.

    After a few weeks of combining the two methods, you'll become attuned to the physical cues that indicate different levels of intensity for you. For example, as you move from a moderate intensity to high intensity, your breathing will change and you may begin to think about ending the workout. During your low intensity workouts, you feel like you can go forever.

    Both methods require a little bit of planning and take a little bit of time. But the effort is worth it. By measuring your exercise intensity you'll get the greatest bang for your buck when you work out. You'll see weight loss results without burning out your body or putting yourself at risk for injury.

    Sources:

    Paula C. Chandler-Laney, DavidW. Brock, Barbara A. Gower, Jessica A. Alvarez, Nikki C. Bush, and Gary R. Hunter. " Self-Reported Low Vitality, PoorMental Health, and Low Dietary Restraint Are Associated with Overperception of Physical Exertion." Journal of Obesity2010.

    Cleary, Michelle A; Hetzler, Ronald K; Wages, Jennifer J; Lentz, Melissa A; Stickley, Christopher D; Kimura, Iris F "Comparisons of Age-Predicted Maximum Heart Rate Equations in College-Aged Subjects." Journal of Strength & Conditioning ResearchSeptember 2011.

    Franckowiak, SC, Dobrosielski, DA, Reilley, SM, Walston, JD, and Andersen, RE. "Maximal Heart Rate Prediction in Adults that Are Overweight or Obese." Journal of Strength & Conditioning ResearchMay 2011.

    C. Matthew Lee, Mark Gorelicka "Validity of the Smarthealth Watch to Measure Heart Rate During Rest and Exercise." Measurement in Physical Education and Exercise Science29 Jan 2011.

    C R Mikus, C P Earnest, S N Blair, T S Church "Heart rate and exercise intensity during training: observations from the DREW Study." British Journal of Sports Medicine7 April 2008.

    Richard D. Morton, Daniel J. West, Jeffrey W. Stephens, Stephen C. Bain Richard M. Bracken. "Heart rate prescribed walking training improves cardiorespiratory fitness but not glycaemic control in people with type 2 diabetes." Journal of Sports Sciences12 Jan 2010.

    Physical Activity for Everyone. Perceived Exertion (Borg Rating of Perceived Exertion Scale) Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Accessed: May 21, 2012. http://www.cdc.gov/physicalactivity/everyone/measuring/exertion.html

    Robert Robergs, Roberto Landwehr. "The Surprising History of the "HRmax=220-age" Equation." Journal of Exercise Physiology online May 2002.

    How to Measure Heart Rate

    For many people, measuring heart rate is a more accurate way to evaluate their exercise intensity. During exercise, you can either wear a heart rate monitor or manually check your pulse.

    • Heart rate monitor. This handy device reads your heart rate from a strap that you wear around your chest. The number is displayed on a wristwatch or on the exercise equipment that you might be using. Monitors range in price from $40 to over $200 depending on the different measurements that you want the device to record. Compare prices to find one that fits in your budget.
    • Manual pulse. To manually take your pulse, you need to stop exercising. Find your pulse on the thumb side of your wrist. Apply gentle pressure and count the beats that you feel for 10 seconds. Multiply the number by six to get your heart rate in beats per minute.

    Remember that a higher number isn't always better! If you are healthy enough for vigorous exercise, you should schedule some workouts that are hard, some that are moderate and some that are easy during the week. This allows your body to burn maximum calories without too much wear and tear.

    If you are not sure what heart rate corresponds to each workload, figure out your target heart rate ranges using simple formulas. Keep in mind, however, that researchers have found a small margin of error in most formulas. But the numbers will give you a general sense of how hard you are working.

    Pros and Cons of Using Heart Rate

    Measuring heart rate is considered to be a more accurate method of evaluating exercise intensity than perceived exertion.

    But that doesn't mean it is always accurate. Several factors including hydration level, medication, climate, and exercise type can affect heart rate.

    The other downside to using heart rate is that in some situations you have to stop exercising to check your pulse or wristwatch. During the time it takes to do this, your heart rate can drop, making your final measurement slightly lower than it should be.

    The Best Way To Measure Exercise Intensity: Combine Both Methods

    The best way to make sure you are getting an accurate measurement of your exercise intensity is to combine the two methods. During your workouts, measure your heart rate with a monitor or by taking your pulse and compare it to your rating of perceived exertion.

    After a few weeks of combining the two methods, you'll become attuned to the physical cues that indicate different levels of intensity for you. For example, as you move from a moderate intensity to high intensity, your breathing will change and you may begin to think about ending the workout. During your low intensity workouts, you feel like you can go forever.

    Both methods require a little bit of planning and take a little bit of time. But the effort is worth it. By measuring your exercise intensity you'll get the greatest bang for your buck when you work out. You'll see weight loss results without burning out your body or putting yourself at risk for injury.

    Sources:

    Paula C. Chandler-Laney, DavidW. Brock, Barbara A. Gower, Jessica A. Alvarez, Nikki C. Bush, and Gary R. Hunter. " Self-Reported Low Vitality, PoorMental Health, and Low Dietary Restraint Are Associated with Overperception of Physical Exertion." Journal of Obesity2010.

    Cleary, Michelle A; Hetzler, Ronald K; Wages, Jennifer J; Lentz, Melissa A; Stickley, Christopher D; Kimura, Iris F "Comparisons of Age-Predicted Maximum Heart Rate Equations in College-Aged Subjects." Journal of Strength & Conditioning ResearchSeptember 2011.

    Franckowiak, SC, Dobrosielski, DA, Reilley, SM, Walston, JD, and Andersen, RE. "Maximal Heart Rate Prediction in Adults that Are Overweight or Obese." Journal of Strength & Conditioning ResearchMay 2011.

    C. Matthew Lee, Mark Gorelicka "Validity of the Smarthealth Watch to Measure Heart Rate During Rest and Exercise." Measurement in Physical Education and Exercise Science29 Jan 2011.

    C R Mikus, C P Earnest, S N Blair, T S Church "Heart rate and exercise intensity during training: observations from the DREW Study." British Journal of Sports Medicine7 April 2008.

    Richard D. Morton, Daniel J. West, Jeffrey W. Stephens, Stephen C. Bain Richard M. Bracken. "Heart rate prescribed walking training improves cardiorespiratory fitness but not glycaemic control in people with type 2 diabetes." Journal of Sports Sciences12 Jan 2010.

    Physical Activity for Everyone. Perceived Exertion (Borg Rating of Perceived Exertion Scale) Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Accessed: May 21, 2012. http://www.cdc.gov/physicalactivity/everyone/measuring/exertion.html

    Robert Robergs, Roberto Landwehr. "The Surprising History of the "HRmax=220-age" Equation." Journal of Exercise Physiology online May 2002.

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