Target Heart Rates for Your Workout

October 17, 2012 - Written by Barbara Gibson

The heart is a marvelous organ. It drives our bodies with very little fanfare. Although most of us rarely give our hearts a thought (unless there is a problem) they are always hard at work. Especially if you are new to exercise you will want to take a few moments to think about your heart as an important member of your fitness team. Your ability to measure your target heart rate can help you track improving fitness levels, maximize your workout and help you burn more calories. Understanding your heart rate is somewhat like monitoring the speedometer of your car. Gauging your rate lets you know if your pace is too slow, too fast or just right. Read about how to calculate your target heart rate below.

Resting Heart Rate

Everyone has a resting heart rate. This is the number of times per minute your heart beats when you are, well, resting. In other words you didn’t just run a lap or climb the stairs. You are sitting comfortably. Estimates vary; some experts say the range is between 50-80 beats per minute (bpm) while others put the range a bit higher at 60-100 bpm.

Your resting heart rate is unique to you and will depend on a number of factors including gender, age and your level of fitness.  For example, some well-trained athletes may have resting hearts of below 50 bpm. If you are new to exercise you may find that your resting heart rate drops as you become more fit. A consistently high resting heart rate is generally correlated with poor health. An occasionally high resting heart rate may be caused by too much caffeine or stress. Talk with your health care professional about the best resting heart for you.

Target Heart Rate

Your target heart rate is measured during activity with the goal of improving heart health. Determining this rate helps you understand if your current level of exertion is appropriate for your fitness goals. For example, if your goal is to lose weight you will want to get your heart pumping at at least 70% of its capacity for 30 minutes.

The most commonly used formula for determining target heart rate is to take the number 220 and subtract your age. The resulting number is your target heart rate. Here is an example for a 46 year old woman: 220- 46 = 174. After you have calculated your target heart rate you can use it to gauge the impact of your workout intensity on your heart. Consider the following examples:


For most people casual walking is a low intensity activity and will use about 50% of your heart rate. Walk for at least 20 minutes, then using your pointer and middle fingers  together, check for a pulse inside your wrist (place your fingers about 1.5 inches below the fleshy bottom of your thumb). This is how it looks on the 46 year old:

220-46 = 174 x .50 = 87





Step up your game a bit by walking briskly, jogging or doing another exercise that requires moderate effort. Here is how the calculation looks:

220-46 = 174 x 65 = 113

This level of activity has often been referred to as the fat burning zone. You are working hard but not so hard that you can’t pass what is commonly called the talk test. You can talk here but you should sound a bit breathy


High intensity exercise uses 90-100% of your target heart rate. There is no talking here. This level of activity is hard to sustain for very long periods. The good news is as your fitness level increases you will be able to push yourself further. Here is the equation:

220-46 = 174 x .90 = 156

Again, you are really pushing it here. Consider exercising at or near your maximum heart rate capacity for short periods to build endurance and lung capacity. These short bursts of intensity (or intervals) can also help boost the effectiveness of your workout and calories burned. To get started just work harder (run or bike faster, etc.) for 30-60 every other minute or two. For example, run 30 seconds, walk 60 seconds; or run 60 seconds, run faster 30 seconds. You can increase the cycle as you are physically able to do so.



Many treadmills and elliptical machines attempt to calculate calories and fat burned as well as heart rate based on information you provide such as your gender, weight and age. While it is okay to use these numbers as a guide you should not consider them unquestionable as they are not known to be completely reliable. When in doubt, use a watch or clock to take your own pulse for 10 seconds. Multiply the number you get by six for a more accurate heart rate.

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