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Your heart rate, also known as your pulse, refers to how many times your heart beats per minute. While seemingly basic, your heart rate can actually offer a phenomenal amount of insight into your overall health, cardiovascular fitness, endurance and more.
Even if you're not a serious athlete, knowing your heart rate can help you determine proper intensity levels for your exercise and make sure you always get the most out of your workouts. More so, knowing and monitoring your heart rate can help you spot current or developing health problems, such as arrhythmias (irregular heart rhythms) or tachycardia (unusually high heart rate). Here's what to know.
There are four different heart rate measurements you should know about. They all have some place in monitoring health and fitness, but your resting heart rate and max heart rate are the two most important.
Resting heart rate
Your resting heart rate is the rate at which your heart beats when you are doing nothing. When you're not exercising or moving around, your heart is pumping the lowest amount of blood you need to survive and fuel your body.
The average resting heart rate is 60 to 80 beats per minute. This varies, though: It's usually lower for people who exercise often, and higher for people who are relatively sedentary. Resting heart rate also often rises as you get older, when you're sick and when you're stressed or anxious.
To determine your resting heart rate the old-school way, simply count how many times your heart beats in a minute. Your reading will be more accurate if you measure it in the morning before you get out of bed. To measure your resting heart rate, follow these steps:
Choose a location at which you can feel your pulse. The best places to find your pulse are on your wrists, the insides of your elbows, the tops of your feet and the side of your neck, just under your jaw.
Place two fingers on the pulse location, and count the number of beats you feel in 60 seconds.
Use a stopwatch during this process because it's unlikely that you'll be able to count both the pulse and the seconds in your head. Counting for a full 60 seconds will provide the most accurate result, but you can also count for 30 seconds and then multiply that number by two.
For example, if I count 30 pulses in 30 seconds, I'd multiply that by two to get 60 for my resting heart rate.
Maximum heart rate
Your maximum heart rate is a measure of your heart's maximum beats per minute. The average max heart rate varies greatly according to age, fitness level and other factors, such as medical conditions and genetics.
The easiest way to estimate your max heart rate is a simple math calculation. Subtract your age from 220 to get an age-predicted max heart rate.
The 220-minus-age formula is the traditional way of measuring max heart rate, and it's still widely used. However, that equation is considered inaccurate by some scientists, and a revised formula is now often used: 208 minus 0.7 x your age.
Note that neither calculation accounts for your fitness level, genes or other factors. Because of this, the standard deviation is 10 to 20 beats per minute. That is, your true maximum heart rate may be 10 to 20 beats per minute higher or lower than the difference in these equations.
Heart rate reserve refers to the difference between your maximum heart rate and your resting heart rate. Heart rate reserve is most often used to estimate a person's ideal training zones -- high-level athletes use these zones to optimize their training.
To measure heart rate reserve, follow these steps:
Determine your resting heart rate using the method above or use data from an activity tracker or other device (more on those below).
Estimate your maximum heart rate by subtracting your age from 220.
Subtract your resting heart rate from your maximal heart rate to determine your heart rate reserve.
For example, my resting heart rate is 58 beats per minute, based on the average that my Fitbit gives me. My max heart rate is 198 (I'm 22 years old, so I used 220 minus 22).
My heart rate reserve -- max heart rate minus resting heart rate (198 minus 58) -- is 148.
Target heart rate
Target heart rate is often used interchangeably with heart rate reserve because they are used for similar purposes, but they're actually different. Your target heart rate is generally defined as 50 to 85 percent of your maximum heart rate, and this range is considered to be the best fat-burning range for exercise.
50 to 70 percent of your max heart rate represents moderate-intensity exercise, and 70 to 85 percent represents vigorous intensity exercise. To find your target heart rate, just multiply your max heart rate by 0.50 and 0.85.
Example: My max heart rate is 198 (based on the 220-minus-age formula).
198 x 0.50 = 99
198 x 0.85 = 168.3
My target heart rate during exercise is between 99 beats per minute and about 170 beats per minute. Keep in mind that ideal training zones differ from person to person.
For instance, I know that I can exercise continuously at the upper end of my target heart rate zone, but I've been running long distance and doing CrossFit for years. A beginner should start at the lower end of their target heart rate range and increase the intensity as their fitness improves.
Best devices for measuring heart rate
So now you know all the different kinds of heart rate and how to measure them using clocks and math. Even though the traditional methods aren't all that hard, there are easier -- and potentially more accurate -- ways to measure and track your heart rate.
The most accurate readings will come from a lab test or other clinical method. But since most people don't have access to and don't need those methods, these devices will work just fine.
Smartwatch or fitness tracker
Smartwatches are easily the most convenient way to measure your heart rate. They're relatively inexpensive, they don't take up a lot of space and they have a substantial battery life. Best of all, fitness trackers are comfortable enough to wear for long periods of time to get a very accurate measure of your heart rate.
Wearing a Fitbit, Apple Watch, Garmin or other tracker allows you to measure your heart rate at all times of day: when you're sleeping, during typical daily activities and during exercise. They then present this data to you in an easy-to-digest way. Fitness trackers and smartwatches use optical technology to read the pulse in your wrist. With optical technology, your tracker sends light into your skin and reads the light that bounces back.
Chest strap heart monitors are probably the most economical way to measure your heart rate -- they tend to be cheaper than smartwatches and other methods. Chest straps work by reading the small electrical signal that your body sends when your heart contracts. They tend to be more accurate than smart watches, but they do have some downfalls.
Chest straps can be uncomfortable because they wrap tightly around your sternum. If they get loose during exercise, they can slip, move out of place or cause chafing. It's tough to adjust a chest strap while in motion, so a faulty one might cause trouble if you're in the middle of a marathon or competition.
Additionally, a chest strap itself doesn't provide visual feedback during exercise like a smartwatch or fitness tracker does, unless you have a Bluetooth-connected tracker somewhere else on your body.
You don't necessarily need to buy another accessory to measure your heart rate -- there are smartphone apps that take advantage of your phone's camera and flash to give you a reading.
Not all apps provide the most accurate readings, but here are a few heart rate apps that rise above the rest.
Headphone heart rate monitors are a great option if you want to comfortably and accurately measure your heart rate during exercise. However, it's doubtful they'd be comfortable to sleep in, so getting a picture of your resting heart rate with this kind of device would be difficult.
When to see a professional about heart rate
Certain medications or irregularities in your heart rate may warrant a visit to your doc. For example, many people on beta blockers (to lower blood pressure) are asked by their doctor to monitor and log heart rate. Keeping tabs on your heart rate can be helpful for your doctor when determining dosage or other treatment.
Additionally, if your pulse is very low, very high or switches frequently between the two, tell your doctor right away. Your pulse is an insightful tool into the status of your health and fitness level. Always check with a doctor before beginning an exercise program.
The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.