How to Measure and Understand Heart Rate


Most people have heard about monitoring their heart rate – the speed at which your heart beats – for exercising safely and effectively. However, they don’t always understand how to measure heart rate or why heart rate measurement is so important.

They are aware that exercise raises the heart rate, but have no real idea about just how much that increase should be. What should your hrv heart rate variability be? How often should your heart rate be elevated? How much should you exercise, for how long, and what will it do to your blood pressure?

To learn what heart rate is optimum for your goals, you must first understand what is heart rate and how it relates to exercise. You should also learn the different methods for accurately identifying your target heart rate.

What is Resting Heart Rate?

With each beat, blood is pumped out from your heart for circulation to different parts of your body. The resting heart rate, also known as RHR, is the speed at which the heart beats while you are resting. If you are physically active or stressed out, your heart rate will increase. A normal resting heart rate for adults varies from 60 to 100 beats per minute (bpm). Men have an average reading of 70-72 beats per minute bpm while women usually have a higher RHR of 78-82 bpm. This difference is because women have smaller hearts and lower blood volume circulating in their bodies.

Your resting heart rate can be changed through training, meaning you can improve the RHR count. The fitter or healthier you become, the lower your resting heart rate will become. Well-conditioned athletes usually have a resting heart rate of about 40 to 60 bpm. This means their heart has to do less work and is more efficient!

So when you are training effectively, your RHR should ideally become lower over a period of time. But if, despite your workouts, your RHR is getting higher, it is a clear sign of overtraining. Regardless of your recovery level, there may be some differences in your daily heart rate. A reading of 3 to 4 bpm more than your normal values is not something to get tensed over. But getting a count of over 5 to 7 bpm more than your normal RHR may be an indication that you have not fully recovered from your workout.

A higher resting heart rate for a longer time duration– like two to three weeks– can be a sign of training fatigue. This means you are not scheduling enough recovery time between your workouts. Take at least a short break to see how your heart rate responds to the extra recovery time.

Keep in mind that stimulants such as caffeine, nicotine, alcohol and certain medications can also affect the heart rate; don’t check your heart rate immediately after these activities. It’s advisable to consult your doctor as early as possible if your RHR is over 100 bpm as this is considered abnormal and fast.

It's important to understand that the number given on your heart-rate monitor is not an indicator of your blood pressure. While physical activity does temporarily increase your blood pressure and your number of beats per minute, the importance of this information varies based on your health history and your goals.

For example, regular moderate-intensity exercise can lower your resting heart rate and blood pressure over time. However, pushing your exercise intensity too far can have drastic health implications if you are de-conditioned or have high blood pressure. It's important to work with a physician and get approval before starting an exercise program, and to stop immediately if you feel any strange heartbeat sensations, chest pain, or shortness of breath as these can be the sign of a heart attack.

If you are well-conditioned and have approval from your physician, knowing how to measure heart rate and pushing yourself to higher levels can help you develop your overall fitness and meet your goals. Working in the appropriate heart rate training zones and can strengthen the heart muscle, and improving the cardiac output of oxygen-rich blood can help improve cardiovascular health and reduce the risk of heart attack, heart disease, second-degree heart block, and heart failure.

Heart Rate Measurement Methods

There are numerous ways you can measure your heart rate with varying levels of accuracy. When determining how to measure heart rate most effectively, consider your goals, budget, and what will work for your method of use. Here are some of the ways to measure heart rate:

  • Wrist or neck pulse - you can take your pulse using your carotid artery in your neck or the radial artery in your wrist. Alternatively, you can use a pulse oximeter, though this would be less convenient in an exercise setting.
  • Activity trackers - modern activity and fitness trackers, such as the Fitbit Charge or apple watch, have heartbeat detection capabilities that can give you an estimate of your beats per minute and even notify you when you reach your target heart-rate. Activity trackers, whether in the form of a heart rate measuring app or watch, have a large margin of error.
  • Chest strap monitor - chest strap monitors measure your heart rate using a heart rate sensor at the center of the action. This method for measuring heart rate is often used by runners and marathoners.
  • Undergoing an Electrocardiogram [ECG or EKG] - this exercise stress test with a physician can get you an MHR reading with higher accuracy. ECG tests are done to screen people for safe participation in exercise, so the medical personnel will be focused on looking for heart disorders in the test results.
  • Undergoing Photoplethysmography PPG - this measurement is used as an alternative to the ECG. It uses light-based technology to get heart rate readings by measuring the rate of blood flow.

An easy way to calculate your heart rate is to use a heart rate monitor. A heart rate monitor is a device that can detect your heartbeat, count the beats per minute and then display it for you. Heart rate monitors can continuously track and display your heart rate as you perform various activities or exercises.

How to Measure Your Resting Heart Rate

If you want to know your resting heart rate, it’s best to check it as soon as you wake up in the morning. However, if your alarm clock jolted you awake, your heart may race for a few moments. If so, give it a few minutes to slow down.

Its best to lie down while checking your RHR. Start by placing two fingers on your pulse at your neck or wrist.

  • Count each heartbeat for 60 seconds. This is a better method to get the most accurate RHR.
  • If you feel too sleepy to count all the way, you can count the beats for just 30 seconds and then multiply your count by 2.
  • You can even count for 6 seconds and then multiply by 10. This is an easier method but has a larger potential for error.

You can actually check your RHR at any time during the day or night, as long as you are rested and comfortable, but it’s most accurate after a long restful sleep. Experienced coaches advise athletes to take a “true” RHR reading first thing in the morning and then a “live” RHR during the day and before training as this provides a lot of information on how different activities during the day affected recovery heart rate.

Calculating Maximum Heart Rate

Your maximum heart rate or MHR is the number of heartbeats per minute when your heart is working at its maximum capacity. It is the highest heart rate that can be achieved by a person while performing strenuous activities. It’s important to find out your maximum heart rate as your target heart rate–the optimum heart rate level for achieving your goals– is calculated using MHR.

A max heart rate calculation can be made using the Maximum Heart Rate Formula: 206.9 – (0.67 x age).

Subtracting your age from the number 220 is an easy way to calculate your MHR. But since MHR actually decreases as we age, this can give your reading that may be up to 12 beats per minute up or down. It’s hard to get an exact MHR is affected by many factors. A variety of MHR values can be found among people of the same age, size, and gender.

  • Size: smaller people end to have higher MHR than larger people.
  • Gender: Probably because of the size difference, women tend to have higher MHR than men.
  • Age: MHR can decline with increasing age.

Target Heart Rate for Different Exercises

For an effective cardio workout, it is important to exercise at a certain level of intensity. Your target heart rate is a zone at which you can attain the level of exertion necessary for improving your cardiovascular fitness. Depending on your age, sex, level of fitness, the target heart rate zone will vary from 50 to 90 percent of your maximum heart rate. Here is the breakdown for understanding heart rate zones:

  • 55-75% of your maximum heart rate is a comfortable low intensity for beginners. This is a good zone for warming up and cooling down. Training at this intensity is designed to improve the basic function of your circulatory system to pump blood more efficiently towards working muscles.
  • 75-85% can serve as a warm-up for more seasoned athletes. You should be able to hold a conversation at this heart rate level. Beginners can train in this range for improving their aerobic capacity. This is an ideal zone to switch down to during high-intensity interval training.
  • 85-89% is a good zone for losing weight and for developing power endurance-based fitness. Attaining this range requires an above-average effort from your side. This is the tipping point between slower, steady-state exercise and faster, higher power based exercise.
  • 90-94% is an intensity zone that is well outside of your comfort zone. Exercise in this zone is dedicated to the ability to sustain high-intensity efforts in which fast-twitch muscles are more prevalent in activation (high power movements). If you can sustain this level even for short durations, it helps burn calories while improving your body’s ability to more efficiently clear waste products from your muscles. High-intensity interval training is one way of achieving these levels.
  • 95-100% is a level only the fittest can achieve one rep after another while pushing their anaerobic threshold. Training in this heart rate zone is all about how well you recover between bouts of activity! Even advanced endurance athletes can only sustain this heart rate only for a short while; the goal becomes performing each bout at the same intensity, with the same power output every time. A cycle of all-out sprinting followed by jogging is an example of very-high intensity interval training with active recovery.

Heart Rate Monitors

Some models of heart monitors give alerts when you are working out above or below your set target heart rate. This allows the users to adjust the intensity of their workouts accordingly. Heart rate monitors that can be strapped around the chest are said to be more accurate than wristband heart monitors. Under Armour has a variety of different heart rate monitors to help with your training efforts.

Listen to Your Heart

Maximum heart rate is not a reflection of your level of fitness and it doesn’t change with your training achievements. The fitter you become, the lower your RHR becomes and you will be able to perform more workouts at your maximum heart rate.

If you are a beginner, you can comfortably start your warm-up at 50 to 60 percent of your maximum heart rate. To improve your fitness, you have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. You should aim to build up gradually towards working out in a 70 to 80% range to build up your endurance. If you are a reasonably fit person, then you can focus more on working from the 80% zone towards the 90 to 100% zone.

Learn to calculate your resting heart rate and max heart rate so that you can figure out your target heart rate. Understanding heart rate will make your workout will be enjoyable, effective and safe as long your heart rate stays within your target heart rate range. Calculate your target heart rate and get started on your fitness journey. Book a session with Gloveworx today to Become Unstoppable!