Thursday, April 28, 2011

Get Your Heart Pumpin’ - How to Assess Your Heart Rate

Here is the first in a series by guest blogger Emily Fonnesbeck (our fab cousin). Let us know what you think!

You’ve felt it haven’t you? You’re on the treadmill going as hard as you can, until finally you reach the point that you think your heart is going to just leap out of your chest, onto the treadmill, and go dashing off the back like some kind of cartoon character. Your heart waves goodbye with a little veiny arm, and you collapse.


OK maybe a bit of an exaggeration, but you know what I’m talking about, right? It’s easy to get on the treadmill for a walk or run, but it’s a little harder to try and keep you heart in a place where you’re getting the best cardiovascular workout. The good news is, simple math and know-how can do the trick and keep your heart right in your chest where it belongs.

For me, running is not something that comes naturally. I have trained for races, and while I am slow, I am relatively steady. I achieve my steadiness though wearing a heart rate monitor and by checking it often to make sure I don’t burn myself out in the beginning. The “overzealous burnout start” is a common malady that affects a lot of amateur exercisers. You get all pumped and ready to kill the workout and you do too much too fast and you’re worn out before you even get a steady burn.  Studies have shown that people who take it easy in the beginning tend to lose more weight and develop cardiovascular fitness faster, as well as reduce the chance for injury. (Heyward 2006) This makes perfect sense when you read it, but when you’re working out, sensibility sometimes flies out the window.

So let’s get down to the nitty gritty: How do you estimate and achieve heart rate goals? My favorite, and one of the most reliable at-home methods is called the Karvonen Method (HRR). Here are the steps:

1.       Determine heart rate (HR) max.
Your heart rate max is the maximum number of beats per minute that your heart can handle. Of course, this is only estimation, and everyone is different, but this is a pretty reliable way to find your max. You can estimate your HRmax through a simple equation:  220-age= HRmax

2.       Determine your HRrest (or, resting heart rate)
The best time to get your resting heart rate is when you first wake up in the morning, before you even step foot on the ground, and provided you didn’t just wake up abruptly. Using the 2-finger method, find your pulse on the carotid artery on your neck, or use your wrist, or whatever you like. Count how many beats there are in one minute. Do it every day for a few days and get an average. There! You have your HRrest.

3.       Decide on your desired intensity.
This means that you need to decide how intense you want your workout to be. If you’re just starting out, it’s recommended you do 40%-60% of your max. If you’re in an intermediate level, you can add 5% gradually until you get to about 85%. This is over a long period of time, usually about four to eight months.

4.       Now the final equation:
Target HR= [%intensity x (HRmax – HRrest)]+HRrest

Voila! Don’t freak out, it’s just math.

Once you find your target heart rate, you can either wear a heart rate monitor (which I recommend because it’s way easier) or you can pause and check yourself on the wrist or neck every once in a while throughout your workout. Take your pulse for at least 15 seconds and multiply by four, or do 30 seconds and multiply by two, yadda yadda yadda.

As you practice, you’ll need to take your heart rate less because you will know how your body feels. Sometimes I like to write my target HR on a little card or on my hand so I have it at quick glance. Really, it seems like a pain in the rear, but knowing your target heart rate is the best way to achieve cardiovascular fitness through consistent heart rate training during exercise (say that five times fast).

Happy training!


  1. So I sped-read the title and I could've sworn it said "Asses to Hearts."

    Yes, I want my ass and heart in shape. LOL