Understanding Your Heart Rate Fitness


“That was a great workout!”

“I’m glad you liked it!”

“I wonder if I could’ve gone any faster.”

“I wonder too, you seemed to be taking some breaks, just because you felt like it was time for a break.”

“I’m unsure sometimes just how hard I can push it.”

“You like gadgets?”


“It might be time for a heart rate monitor.”

It’s easy to sit back sometimes and think about how superior our Paleo ancestor’s lifestyles were. While there’s no doubt that some of their experiences lead to a more healthy lifestyle, the digital age has given us some pretty cool tools to measure, track, and give us feedback about our bodies. In our quest for health, harnessing the power of science is easier than ever right now with affordable gadgets and apps.

Let me just say here that this is going to be a general information post. I’m NOT a doctor, but I do use a heart rate monitor for myself and a few of my clients.

We’ll be dividing this post into two parts.

Why is Heart Rate Important? How Is a Heart Rate Monitor Useful?

I’ve been experimenting lately with the use of a heart rate monitor, and I like it for a few reasons. First, I use it to see what my resting heart rate is, so that I can track how generally I have adapted to my quest for fitness. Second, I get feedback during and after a workout to see how hard I was going and if, indeed, I was giving enough effort that day.

Step One: Resting Heart Rate

One of the very first things you should do after getting a heart rate monitor (and an app if need be) is to take your resting heart rate. This is your heart rate after a period of relaxation, without the presence of stressors, and usually taken laying down. This one number is a great tool to give you a glimpse of the inner workings of your circulatory system.

How to Take Your Resting Heart Rate

Sit down or lay down and chill with a normal stopwatch and give yourself a good 2 minutes for your heart rate to settle. It takes a while to get that ticker to settle down! (A great time to take your resting heart rate is first thing in the morning before you’ve gotten out of bed.)

heart-rate-235x300.jpgOnce you’re settled and your heart rate seems to be relatively consistent, take your fingers and place them either on the inside of your wrist, or right under your jawbone, where your throat kind of meets your skull. You should be able to feel a pulse in either of these places. Simply keep count for a whole minute to get your resting heart rate. Whatever the number of beats, that’s your resting heart rate. Alternatively, you can count for 10 seconds and multiply by 6, or count for 15 seconds and multiply by 4.

A resting heart rate of 50-90 beats per minute is generally considered normal for a typical adult.

If your resting heart rate is higher than 100, you should consider contacting your doctor as your heart rate is out of the normal range and you may be suffering from tachycardia (higher than normal resting heart rate).

Your resting heart rate is not a number that is constant; it can vary a bit from one day to the next. For example, mine may be 48 one day, and 52 the next. Many of lifes stressors, ranging from work, to kids, to exercise, to eating funky can all have an effect on your stress level, and therefore your heart rate. Even thinking a stressful thought can have an effect on your resting heart rate! I find the best way to be sure that my heart rate is relatively consistent, is to take it at the same time, and under the same conditions each day.

Your resting heart rate should be considered a data point on your own quest for health. This number can give you a brief idea of what your health might be like, but over time, changes can give us another color to fill in the whole health picture. So, your resting heart rate shouldn’t be something that causes you stress! (You probably have enough stress already!) It should rather be a way to gauge how you are progressing with your own particular fitness journey.

Generally the lower the number of the resting heart rate (within the normal range), the more fit the person; a person with higher endurance is going to have a slower resting heart rate. Some endurance athletes have resting heart rates in the 40’s or even lower!

For the rest of us, if we’re restarting our fitness journey after being away from it for a while, a slight downward trend of the resting heart could indicate a general improvement in aerobic fitness. For example, if you started out with a resting heart rate in the high 70’s and after 6 months of hitting the gym you find that your resting heart rate is now in the low 70’s, or even the 60’s…woohoo! You can probably credit your lower heart rate to the changes that you made in your lifestyle, and specifically your exercise.

Getting enough sleep, keeping your diet clean, getting exercise, and meditating can all have a positive effect on your resting heart rate.

Step Two: Maximum Heart Rate

If you want to get a TRUE measure of your own personal maximum heart rate, you’re going to need a willing doctor, a treadmill, and some pretty fancy equipment. For the rest of us, we’re going to be doing some math to estimate where our max heart rate should be.

There are a variety of formulas by a variety of researchers that claim to have found the magic number that your maximum heart rate should be. Some equations spit out numbers that have an error of 5, with others have an error range of as much as 20 beats per minute! The easiest equation is simply 220 – your age. I’ve found that this number is rather close for me, but seems a bit off for some of my clients. The people over at Digifit seem to have a pretty exhaustive list, so we’ve decided to include a link to their multiple equation site.

All of these formulas will give you a single number, but this number is an estimate or your max heart rate. As in you can’t go any faster. It’s the point at which you MUST take a break, or you feel like your heart is going to jump out of your chest. If you’ve ever done max heart rate training, you’ll agree that this number is pretty much your limit.

Step Three: Understanding Your Heart Rate in Practice

measuring-heart-rate-199x300.jpgIn practice, I’ve found that these numbers are useful as a general check-in for how I THINK I’m doing, versus how I’m actually doing. Some days, I may FEEL like I’ve gone full out during my workout, but judging by the heart rate monitor, I could’ve gone harder.

There has been some research to support the idea of staying in the “Orange Zone” for your heart rate could lead to the most “after burn” effects for fat burning for your body. The Orange Zone is 75-85% of your maximum heart rate, so for me that would be the 135-153 beats per minute range (my theoretical max heart rate is 181). That is kind of the peak of your aerobic training, meaning that after this point your body is switching from burning primarily fat to burning more sugar for fueling effort. If you’re crazy fit, that Orange Zone is going to feel quite sustainable.

It’s also fun to view your heart rate while working out. What if you tried performing 50 burpees, all the while maintaining a heart rate under 150?! Over time, you may surprised that it will take less time at the same heart rate! For example, you may find that after 6-8 weeks of super awesome workouts, you can do 50 burpees in under 5 minutes, while still keeping your heart rate in that Orange Zone we mentioned earlier. For most of us, this would mean that our resting heart rate has probably dropped over time as well!

Step Four: Heart Rate as a Recovery Tool

You can also use your max heart rate to monitor your recovery. Instead of trying to target a high number for your workout, for recovery, you’re targeting a lower number, forcing yourself to “go easy.” I know that I find it quite challenging to keep my heart rate under 140 for an entire workout. But this may, indeed, be what my day calls for in order to give myself enough rest to keep me headed towards my goals.

Many of us feel that we actually want to keep the habit of working out every day, but don’t want to go so hard as to cause injury. Having a day where you have a target heart rate that you try to stay under, like 140, is a great way to go out for a recovery run, but keep yourself from going too fast and ruining your recovery!

How fast your body recovers from the workout can also tell you a bit about how far along on your fitness journey you are. Even after some max heart rate training, I’ve found that after only 2 minutes, my heart rate is down into less than 60% max heart rate. This could be considered in the normal range for recovery. If it takes you a long time for your heart rate to recover after a big effort, then you perhaps have some work to do on your fitness!

Stay tuned for a small review on a few of the Heart Rate Apps that I have tested!! Coming very soon!