Understanding Your Beat

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Get to know your heart rate to improve your health and fitness journey

Walk into almost any gym, or even simply stroll the mall, and you’ll spot a very familiar accessory in our 21st-century world—the Apple Watch. Just a quick glance down at your wrist can tell you how many steps you’ve taken, how many calories you’ve burned, how long you slept last night and your heart rate at any given time. The last of these may be one of the most unsung metrics of health and fitness.

By definition, your heart rate, also known as your pulse, is the number of times your heart beats per minute. You have a “resting” heart rate when your body is in a complete state of rest, an “active” heart rate when you are moving, and a “max” rate that you would reach at the peak of an intense workout.

“Knowing your ‘normal’ resting and active heart rate can be important to signify if there are any heart or other health conditions that need to be addressed, especially as we age,” says Tasha McConnell, M.S., certified personal trainer and head trainer at Burn Boot Camp Lynchburg. “A good time to check your resting heart rate is right after you wake up from a good night’s sleep and before you get out of bed.”

The American Heart Association defines anywhere from 60-100 beats per minute to be a normal resting heart rate. “There are some experts that believe 50-70 is actually a better ideal resting rate. Keep in mind a healthy heart rate will vary from person to person and depends on the situation,” she says, adding that factors such as stress, anxiety, hormones, medications, supplements, and fitness levels are all variables.

Once you know your resting heart rate, you will want to start keeping track of where that number is when you are exercising. “Knowing your max and active rate can help you understand how hard to push during a workout,” McConnell says.

Calculate your max heart rate first to act as a benchmark.
“Generally, you will take 220 minus your age. This is an estimate
and it will vary person to person,” McConnell says. “A good goal in terms of health and fitness would be to stay at about 85% of that number during intentional exercise.”

So for a 35-year-old woman, your max heart rate would be approximately 185. During a workout, staying around 157 beats per minute would show you are pushing yourself hard enough and optimizing your workout.

Keep in mind that your max heart rate is not a number you want to sustain for long periods of time. McConnell says not only is it difficult, it could be dangerous, with symptoms such as shortness of breath, dizziness and chest pains likely for an average, healthy person.

“These would all be warning signs to slow down,” says McConnell. “Your body is wired for survival and would warn you if it sensed something wrong.”

Your watch won’t tell you to stop—that’s up to you! It’s also important not to take the numbers too seriously. According to McConnell, the accuracy of fitness trackers is often debated. “They use a green LED light that can monitor blood flow through the wrist. Blood flow at the wrist is said to be slower versus near the heart,” she says, but counters that fitness trackers can be a useful tool for fitness to act as a baseline for users.

When all else fails, get your heart rate—resting, active or max—the old-fashioned way. Find your pulse at your wrist or neck. Count the beats for one minute or, if you are short on time, count the beats for
15 seconds and multiply by four.

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