How To Calculate Your Heart Rate

The human heart beats about 100,000 times a day. That’s about two billion heartbeats during a lifetime! How many of those should you spend on a workout?

Exercise is one of the best ways to increase your life expectancy, due in part to the effect of cardiovascular (or aerobic) exercise. You can increase this component of your fitness by doing steady aerobic work (walking, running, cycling, and swimming are just a few examples) at a given percentage of your maximum heart rate. But how the heck do you figure out what that is?

The most accurate way to determine your maximum heart rate is by undergoing an incremental exercise test to maximum exercise level. This is not fun, and requires precise monitoring with specific equipment. Your doctor is probably not going to prescribe this just because you ask for it (but they might!). More commonly, personal trainers, exercise physiologists, health coaches, and other exercise professionals use a formula that estimates your maximum heart rate, based on your age:

Calculating Maximum Heart Rate – Normal, Healthy People

When planning day-to-day exercise, there is a commonly used equation to estimate your maximum heart rate that is actually quite simple, and is empirically based (meaning based on solid research). It’s not as precise as the exercise testing, but it is much easier. All it takes is a little math.

Maximum Heart Rate (in beats per minute) = 220 – Age in years

For example, the maximum heart rate calculation for a 35 year old would look like this:

Maximum heart rate = 220 – 35

Maximum heart rate = 185 beats per minute

However, it is important to note that this equation can overestimate or underestimate your maximum heart rate by as much as 12 to 15 beats. In general, this variation is mostly due to age, but can also be influenced by factors such as fitness level and individual genetic makeups, which are impossible to account for in the estimation.

If you are over 40, the above equation may overestimate your maximum heart rate as 12-15 beats per minute higher than it actually should be. This means that the number the equation tells you could be 12-15 beats per minute higher than it should be, and you should use caution with exercise that takes your near your calculated heart rate max.

If you are under 40, the above equation may underestimate your maximum heart rate by 12-15 beats per minute. This means that exercise that takes you near the calculated maximum heart rate may not truly be your max – you may be exercising at a lower intensity than you mean to.

There are two other variations for calculating maximum heart rate for specific populations, which take into account more specific variables.

Calculating Maximum Heart Rate for Obese Individuals

This variation on the maximum heart rate equation takes into account the low fitness level that very often corresponds with obesity. It also takes into account the health challenges an individual may face, including heart disease, which may further increase risk of injury or cardiac event brought on by strenuous exercise.

Maximum Heart Rate, Obese Individuals (In beats per minute) = 200 x (0.5 x Age in years)

For example, the maximum heart rate calculation for a 50 year old obese individual would look like this:

Maximum heart rate = 200 – (0.5 x 50)

Maximum heart rate = 200 – 25

Maximum heart rate = 175 beats per minute

Calculating Maximum Heart Rate for Older Adults

Your heart has its own natural pacemaker, which creates the electrical impulse that causes each heartbeat. As you age, these impulses – and subsequently your heartbeat – gradually slow. (This is a normal process and nothing to worry about!)

This physical difference means that in order to be more accurate, if you are an older adult (above the age of 60), you should be using a slightly different formula to estimate your maximum heart rate. Older adults can make the same changes to cardiovascular fitness as any other age group, and the relative intensity that you can work to as an older adult is unchanged. A workout that brings you to about 70% of your maximum heart rate will feel the same whether you’re 37 or 73. It’s only your actual heart rate that will be different. So it’s worth planning well. Using the following modified formula will ensure that you A) stay within safe limits when exercising and B) continue to make progress and increase your fitness levels!

Maximum Heart Rate, Older Adults (In beats per minute) = 208 x (0.7 x Age in years)

For example, the maximum heart rate calculation for a 73 year old would look like this:

Maximum heart rate = 208 – (0.7 x 73)

Maximum heart rate = 200 – 51

Maximum heart rate = 149 beats per minute

With respect to all of these situations, it’s important to listen to your body when gauging your exercise intensity. If you feel like you’re working moderately, very hard, or somewhere in between, then it’s ok to use that to gauge your workout intensity as well. We call this a rating of perceived exertion, and it has a strong parallel to heart rate when it comes to gauging intensity. You can use both methods to gauge intensity, or you can aim for a target heart rate and work within 5-10 beats per minute of that number.

 

References
Miller, Wayne C., Janet P. Wallace, and Karen E. Eggert. “Predicting Max HR And The HR-&VO2 Relationship For Exercise Prescription In Obesity”. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise 25.9 (1993): 1077-1081.
Plowman, Sharon A and Denise L Smith. Exercise Physiology For Health, Fitness, And Performance. 4th ed. Baltimore: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2014.
Tanaka, Hirofumi, Kevin D Monahan, and Douglas R Seals. “Age-Predicted Maximal Heart Rate Revisited”. Journal of the American College of Cardiology 37.1 (2001): 153-156.

Do You Need an Expert to Exercise?

The short answer is no.

The longer answer… is no, if you are satisfied with slower progress, possible setbacks, and frustration.  There’s a reason that more people have more success when they bring in some outside guidance!

I don’t mean to say that you have to hire a coach (or trainer, the terms can be interchangeable) in order to get an effective workout. In fact, most of us get along ok with minimal guidance, at least for a while. It really comes down to whether you’re satisfied with “getting along ok” or if you want to make faster/better/more progress. You don’t necessarily need a coach for every single session, but getting expert advice can be very helpful in setting a goal or creating a training plan designed to achieve it. And it can definitely help to have a little accountability.

But the biggest benefit of having the expert advice is the relationship that comes with it. Your coach can be your cheerleader, your support system, and the person you call when you really want the ice cream in the freezer but know it would be a step backward… Plus they know how to give you the most efficient exercise program possible. Better than trying to figure it out on your own and then not getting the results, right?

So what’s the best way to include expert advice in your exercise program? There are a few ways to approach this:

See a coach, every week: Some say that this is the very best way to get results. Having a weekly session can do huge things for your motivation and accountability. Some people really love having the one-on-one attention, and frankly, some people need the one-on-one attention to make sure that their exercise technique is safe and effective (the two most important things, in my opinion). And just to be clear, “seeing” a coach can be equally effective in face-to-face, skype or video, or other online settings. It’s all about what you feel comfortable with.

See a coach, occasionally: Once-a-month coaching will get you an individualized program without the cost of ongoing one-on-one training.  A monthly meeting also provides a surprising amount of accountability. Personally, this is my favorite way to see clients. I love to take a session or two to get them comfortable with a new program, and to make sure that they are staying on top of other healthy habits like eating well and staying hydrated. Once my client and I are happy with the program, I’ll send them off to do the new workout on their own until they’re ready for something new.

Join a group: Many gyms and groups are starting to offer small group training programs, with a limited number of people and a supervising coach. You get the expert advice on a regular basis, but you share it with a few other people. The biggest drawback is that these group sessions are not always individualized, but generally speaking, the benefits outweigh this by miles. Often you’ll find that the same people come to the same sessions every week, so you start to get to know each other – and all of a sudden, you have way more support, accountability, and motivation than you can ever have with your one-on-one sessions. And even though the program is often generalized, a good coach will be able to make changes on the fly, allowing the program to be tweaked just for you.

And of course, you can go it alone. If coaching isn’t in your budget, doing your own thing is still a great option and you can still have a great deal of success. But if you have the means and are going to put the effort in, you might as well get the most bang for buck. And that expert advice might even make it more enjoyable.