Working with a heart rate monitor is a great way to track of your current level of fitness. It can also help you to work out more effectively whether your goal is to burn fat or to increase your endurance.

Heart Function and the Keys to a Healthy Heart

The heart is responsible for the circulation of blood to muscles, organs and skin. Blood carries oxygen, nutrients and other essential elements to the cells in the body. It also helps in removal of carbon dioxide and other waste products from the body. The heart muscle contracts at regular intervals to pump blood at a rate of about five liters per minute into a complex network of arteries, veins and capillaries spread throughout the body. This creates some pressure in your arteries which is known as blood pressure. It is a very important number when determining cardiovascular health and heart health in general. The normal score is about 120/80 MMHG but you should be trying to aim at a score below this. As more cholesterol is deposited within those arteries, your arteries get stiff, making it harder for blood to be pumped and your blood pressure can go up because of it. This usually happens due to unhealthy lifestyle choices like smoking, eating poorly, not exercising and getting less sleep.

How to Determine Heart Rate Zones

The key here is trying to prevent your blood pressure from rising instead of waiting to get high blood pressure symptoms and taking medication. Even medication does not solve the root cause but only helps to relieve the symptoms. Only by dieting and exercise, you can truly improve your blood pressure and heart health. Therefore, in order to determine heart health we need to answer two questions:

1) How much blood is being delivered with every contraction or what is the stroke volume?

2) How often the heart has to contract in order to deliver blood or what is the heart rate?

The product of stroke volume and heart rate gives us the total cardiac output. The cardiac output usually rises when we exercise, due to an increase in stroke volume and heart rate. With regular exercise and training programs, you can maintain higher cardiac output with less effort. This allows you to maintain lower heart rates during high physical activity, which leads to better endurance.

What Should my Heart Rate Be?

The heart rate is measured in beats per minute, which you also know as pulse. The heart rate changes to high or low depending on the level of stress or physical activity placed on your body. That is why during high intensive workouts, your heart rate skyrockets in order to meet the demand of your skeletal muscles. If the heart fails to circulate sufficient blood to transport oxygen and nutrients at the rate the body needs, the body will collapse. Resting heart rate (calculated when a person is sitting or lying calmly) is usually around 72 beats per minute, but if you have good cardiovascular health, your resting heart rate is usually lower. The heart rate is important because it gives us an inside view on how intense an activity is and how much energy is being consumed.

How do you Calculate Your Maximum Heart Rate

Another term that you should be familiar with, is your heart rate maximum.  Your maximum heart rate is the number of beats per minute your heart would be when you are working at 100 percent of your intensity. The only way to find out your exact maximum heart rate is to do an exercise stress test. However, there is also a formula to determine your estimated maximum heart rate.

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220 – Age = Estimated Max Heart Rate

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How Do You Calculate Your Heart Rate Training Zone?

The number calculated from the above formula will help to determine the zones where our heart rate should be, during whatever type of activity we are doing.  It is also a good guideline for beginners in order to make sure that they are challenging themselves but not pushing themselves too far. Now that we have our maximum heart rate, we are going to multiply that number by different percentages in order to let us know, what intensity we should be, during our workouts.

If you are a novice just starting out with your exercise, you should try to stay between 50 to 65 percent of your heart rate maximum. For instance, if you are 35 years of age, your maximum heart rate is calculated as follows:

220 – Age = Estimated Max Heart Rate

220 – 35 = 185 beats per minute

Therefore, the calculated max heart rate for a person with an age of 35 years is 185 beats per minute. We now calculate the 50 percent and 65 percent of 185 beats per minute:

Calculate 50 percent of 185

50/100*185 = 92.5 beats per minute

Calculate 65 percent of 185

65/100*185 = 120.25 beats per minute

Therefore, Low intensity workout = 92 – 120 beats per minute (bpm)

If you are just starting out with activity, you should try to keep your heart rate between 92 beats per minute and 120 bpm and the more comfortable you feel you can work your way up later. Once you get some experience, you can start bumping up the intensity and therefore bumping up the heart rate zone in which you train. In order to train at a moderate intensity you would want to stay between 60 to 75 percent of your heart rate maximum. For our example of a 35-year-old person, this comes out to be between 111 beats per minute and 139 beats per minute.  This zone challenges you but does not push you over the edge.

Now if you are a little bit more advanced and have more experience, you can start training in vigorous heart rate zones. In vigorous zones, your body is on an overdrive trying to meet up with the demands of activity. You should make sure that your physician clears you before you start participating in vigorous workouts. To calculate what heart rate zone to train at, during vigorous workouts, use your heart rate maximum and stay between 70 to 85 percent of your heart rate max. For a 35 year old, it is between 130 beats per minute and 157 beats per minute. During high intensity workouts, your body burns large amounts of calories and this may aid in weight loss.

Exercise zones target heart rate

It is recommended that every week, you should be exercising from 150 to 300 minutes at moderate intensity and about 75 to 150 minutes at a vigorous intensity. In order to measure your heart rate manually, you can sit and feel your pulse at your wrist with two fingers over your radial artery. Count the number of beats for 15 seconds and multiply that figure by 4 to calculate your beats per minute. This method may not be practical when doing workouts. Therefore, we recommend that you invest in a heart rate monitor. The heart rate monitors available today have additional features to track your steps, distance, temperature, altitude, etc. Known as activity trackers or fitness bands, they can be clipped on to your belt, shoe, pocket or bra and can even be worn as bracelets around your wrist. Some activity trackers have built-in heart rate sensors while others are compatible with external heart rate sensors.

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How to train with a heart rate monitor

Many years ago, before the invention of heart rate monitors, people thought that the best way to get fit was to train as hard as possible. However, in fact the very best way to reach your goal is to train smart. You do this by listening to your heart, so you know when to go fast and when to go slow. Heart rate monitors not only give us the information about heart rates but also analyze the information, to guide us further. This way you will know the right intensity at which to train, so you never waste any time. Knowing how hard to push your heart and for how long, takes the guesswork out of your hard work.

Your heart rate generally shows the level of effort that you put in, but there are one or two exceptions. One of them is lag. Your heart rate does not respond quite as quickly as your effort levels can. For example, in a sprint, which is of course, a maximum effort and so short that your heart rate would not have the time to change appropriately before you stopped sprinting. There could be a heart rate lag on longer intervals too. This would mean that after the start of an effort it would take the heart rate a little bit of time to match exactly with what you are doing. Therefore, to reach a particular heart rate zone you should give yourself 3 to 5 minutes of warm up time.

You also need to remember that your heart rate can be affected by outside factors such as your core body temperature, your hydration status, caffeine intake, humidity levels, altitude and fatigue. Therefore, the more you use your heart rate monitor, the more you can understand that what affects it and by how much. You can also use your heart rate monitor to measure your fatigue levels. Therefore, the first thing in the morning, as soon as you wake up, you should check your heart rate. The mornings where your heart rate is slightly higher than others, is a very good sign that you might be slightly fatigued.

What is EPOC?

EPOC is an acronym for Excess Post-exercise Oxygen Consumption.  It is the effect of physical activity on the body after completion of the activity. The calories burned by your body are directly related to the amount of oxygen your body uses to function on a daily basis. Therefore, the more oxygen you consume, the more calories you burn. Many people claim that doing high intensity exercise will turn you into an oxygen consuming fat burning machine for the next 24 to 48 hours after workout. Some refer to this as the “after burn effect” of the exercise. This effect has a direct relation to the intensity and the kind of exercise. Since anaerobic exercise is a high intensity workout, it has more EPOC effect and therefore this form of workout burns more calories post exercise.

The short intense burst of exercise creates an oxygen deficit in your body as your body works harder. Then you trigger a higher state of fatigue in your body, hence your body enters a state of recovery. In this recovery mode, increased oxygen intake is required to restore the body to its normal state and this could take anywhere from 15 minutes to 48 hours. There is no accurate way to measure the amount of calories you burn during EPOC phase.

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What is the Difference between Aerobic and Anaerobic Exercise?

Energy for muscle activity is derived from two main metabolic pathways – Aerobic, meaning with oxygen and anaerobic, meaning without oxygen. Light to moderate activity is aerobic whereas extremely vigorous effort is termed as anaerobic. During aerobic exercise, the body utilizes oxygen and energy comes from the oxidation of fats and carbohydrates. If you continue to increase the intensity of the exercise, the muscles gradually make a transition to anaerobic energy production, as the required energy can no longer be derived from oxygen. Energy is then produced from glycogen in the muscles. The production of lactic acid and carbon dioxide during vigorous effort are associated with labored breathing, fatigue and discomfort. Cardio, spinning, walking, hiking, swimming are examples of aerobic exercises. Weight lifting, sprinting and jumping are examples of anaerobic exercises.

Heart rate and VO2

VO2 is the volume of oxygen utilized per minute. The heart rate is in a linear relationship with exercise intensity. As there is an increase in our exercise intensity our demand for oxygen and blood increases which in turn increases our heart rate. The VO2 is also in a linear relationship to the intensity of exercise as we consume more oxygen when we increase our effort.

VO2 max is the maximum volume of oxygen your body is capable of utilizing in one minute. It is your aerobic capacity and is the rate at which you use oxygen during a maximum cardio effort. Therefore, if you go outside and run as hard as you possibly can, eventually you will hit a point where you couldn’t possibly work harder. This is your VO2 max and just like your muscles unless you are doing something to maintain your VO2 max, it will deteriorate over time. HIIT training is said to improve VO2 max.

VO2 max is a good way to measure a person’s cardiovascular fitness by looking at how well a person’s body can transport and utilize oxygen during exercise. One of the byproducts of cardio respiratory fitness is carbon dioxide. The more carbon dioxide you are expelling, the closer you are reaching that plateau before you switch to anaerobic energy production where you are no longer using enough oxygen. The higher the number the VO2 max test can get, the better the body is at transferring and using the oxygen.

Recovery Heart Rate

The heart rate recovery is how fast your heart rate declines after exercise. Generally, in the first minute the heart rate falls by at least 12 beats per minute.  This is also an indication of overall cardiovascular health and specifically aerobic fitness. The abnormalities associated with impaired heart rate recovery can be because of overall low physical fitness and can be associated with having heart disease or a weakened heart.

High Intense Interval Training Workouts (HIIT)

HIIT is an acronym for High Intensity Interval Training. Also called sprint interval training is an exercise strategy with alternating periods of short intense anaerobic exercise with recovery periods. Usually HIIT sessions vary from 9 to 20 minutes. These short intense workouts, condition your aerobic and anaerobic energy systems. It increases the amount of calories you burn during your exercise sessions and afterward. HIIT training is designed for people, whose primary concerns are boosting their overall cardiovascular fitness, endurance and fat loss.