First off, know that maintaining a healthy heart is one of the most important reasons to exercise. Since the heart is a muscle, regular exercise increases the heart's capacity to deal with new tasks without strain – much like strengthening skeletal muscles. Your heart rate gives you a play-by-play account of your body's responses to changes in your physical activity. It also determines whether you're working hard enough to get the results you seek or if you're not allowing enough recovery time after your last workout (your resting heart rate will be higher than normal).
In order to find your best zone for your goals and activity, you must first know how to calculate your maximum heart rate. The following formula offers a rough baseline:
Most fitness experts suggest using a combination of this formula and a scale of rate of perceived exertion (RPE). In other words, on a scale of six to 20, 20 being the most strenuous, how hard are you working?
For endurance training and general aerobic conditioning, calculate 50 to 65 percent of your maximum heart rate if you're a beginner, 60 to 75 percent for intermediate-level exercisers and 70 to 85 percent for established aerobic exercisers. For example, if you're a 45-year old beginner with no known health issues, your maximum heart rate is approximately 175 beats a minute. Fifty to 65 percent is 87 to 113 beats per minute; this is your starting point for cardiovascular activity – light to fairly light on the RPE scale.
For weight loss, use interval training to burn the most calories. Short bursts of high intensity (80 to 85 percent of your MHR) followed by lower intensity recovery periods (50 to 65 percent of your MHR) burn more calories than exercising at a consistent level of exertion for the same amount of time.
Your heart rate can also help you keep tabs on your progress: Take your heart rate 15 to 60 minutes after exercising and compare these numbers over time as you get in better shape. The numbers decrease as your heart becomes stronger.
Far superior to manually taking your pulse, a wireless monitor (Polar makes a good one) tells you your heart rate within seconds. As mentioned earlier, most gym cardio equipment comes equipped with built-in heart rate monitors. So the next time you're on the treadmill, track your heart rate to ensure you're getting the most bang for your exercise buck. If you're still in doubt, seek advice from a certified trainer.
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