I jump on an elliptical machine, get warmed up and look down at my watch and see that my heart rate is way below where it should be based on my exercise goals. This number immediately tells me I need to focus on my workout and kick it up a notch. Although socializing at a gym or enjoying a good TV program while you work out is relaxing, we have a tendency to drift away from our workout. A heart rate monitor can bring you back to reality. Heart rate monitors are for anyone interested in making their exercise more effective and time efficient. Your heart rate is the best way to measure your cardiovascular exercise intensity. It directly corresponds to your level of exertion or effort. Guessing your body’s efforts on the basis of your perceived exertion, breathing rate, pulse or physical sensations can be challenging. None of those methods is as reliable as measuring your heart rate which gives you an objective picture as to your body’s response to the physical activity you are doing. You can look at a heart rate monitor as a personal trainer, it tells you when to speed up or slow down. If its too low during exercise your body gets little benefit and you are unlikely to see results like weight loss or increased endurance. If it is too high you may tire quickly and run the risk of overtraining or injury. The best way to improve your health and fitness level is to train at the right intensities based on your exercise or training program goals. Getting the best results doesn’t always mean working faster or harder.

Hearts have a maximum number of times per minute that they can beat, this is called the maximum heart rate. It is influenced by gender, age, weight, heredity and fitness level. Your maximum heart rate can be used to quantify levels of intensity. There are many ways to determine your max heart rate such as a laboratory stress test, doing an activity at maximum effort and recording the highest heart rate (not recommended for untrained individuals) and there are several equations that people use. The easiest way to get a rough estimate is to take 220 – age.

By exercising in specific target heart rate zones you can improve your fitness. These zones are a percentage range based on your maximum heart rate. Each heart rate zone has specific training benefits. Training in several zones gives you multiple health and fitness benefits, plus it gives you variation in your exercise routine. An example of 4 target zones:

Zone 1: 60-70% of Max Heart Rate
This is a great zone to be in if you are warming up, cooling down, recovering or just starting a fitness program. This is a less intense, comfortable zone where you should be able to carry on a conversation. This zone has been shown to help decrease body fat, blood pressure and cholesterol. Most calories burned in this zone are fat.

Zone 2: 70-80% of Max Heart Rate
This is the zone where people who exercise regularly can achieve many benefits. It is ideal for cardiovascular fitness, endurance training, muscle strength and weight management. You need to build a fitness base in zone 1 before you will feel comfortable in this zone. This is a faster paced zone where you will be breathing harder and burning more calories.

Zone 3: 80-90% of Max Heart Rate
This zone is where performance enhancements occur. People do not spend long steady workouts in this zone. It is a zone that is used to increase speed and power and is used for interval workouts. Your breathing will be heavy and muscles will get tired. This zone enhances lung capacity and improves ones ability to do short but hard efforts.

Zone 4: 90-100% of Max Heart Rate
This zone is very intense and only the very fit are able to train effectively here. You should only train in this zone if you are in very good shape and have been cleared by a physician to do so. Most people can not stay in this zone for more than a few minutes.

Polar watches

Once you calculate your training zones based off of your maximum heart rate you can enter them into your monitor and it will show you what zone you are exercising in and notify you when you fall out of your target zone. No more guessing. There are many different models on the market ranging from $50-$450. Choose one with features that meet your needs. The most common types have two pieces, a transmitter that straps around your chest which will register your heart rate and a watch receiver that will display your information. Basic models time your workout, give you continuous, average, high and low heart rate data and count calories. As you choose more advanced models you will find that many submit a coded signal to prevent other heart rate monitors from interfering with your data, some have GPS to track your speed, distance, location and elevation, other features include a stop watch, lap times, recovery heart rate, time in target zones, a computer interface that tracks your data and bike mounting options. Just make sure you take the time to read the manual or go through an online tutorial so you don’t miss out on any of the great features.

When you start to watch your heart rate you will see that exercise is not the only factor that contributes to a higher heart rate. Temperature, humidity, altitude, dehydration, state of health, psychological stress and some medications can effect your heart rate too. You can also learn a lot about your body if you determine what your normal resting heart rate is before you get out of bed. If my resting heart rate is higher than normal I know something is going on with my body. I’m usually starting to get sick or I haven’t been good about giving my body the appropriate rest and recovery it needs.

So start learning about your body and exercise intensity by using a heart rate monitor. It’s an excellent motivator!

Note: Prior to the start of any exercise program you should consult with your physician.

Nicole Bobe ~ Registered Dietitian, Fitness Instructor

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