Heart Rate is a Great Measure of Your Workout Intensity


 ***image1***  One of the questions I ask new clients when learning about their exercise history is, “On a scale of 1 – 10, with 10 being the hardest, how hard are your current exercise sessions?”  I am always surprised to learn that many people haven’t given a bit of thought to the intensity of their workouts, and don’t know how to answer that question! Without knowing how hard you are working, it is hard to tell if you are working hard enough to get the results you want, or if you are working too hard for your fitness level. It’s difficult for the average person to know when to push harder or when to back off.

For that reason, I encourage people to pay attention to their intensity levels during workouts. Either through an objective measure such as a heart rate monitor, or a subjective measure (“I feel like I’m working not-very-hard/hard/very hard/too hard”).  Objectively, heart rates can be very revealing. Once you have established your resting heart rate, a heart rate monitor can tell you if you are working at the right intensity. It can also tell if perhaps on a particular day you may need to reduce the intensity of your workouts due to stress, fatigue, or other unusual circumstances.

The best way to determine your resting heart rate (RHR) is to take your pulse for one minute (or for 10 seconds and multiply that number by 6) immediately upon awakening naturally – not with an alarm clock! That will give you the truest picture of your RHR.  You can also find your RHR by taking your pulse after having been reclining or seated, and quiet for a few minutes. Your resting heart rate is your baseline. There may be days when your RHR seems high – perhaps you stayed up late, did not sleep well, have been under stress, or may even be working out too much (overtraining). Those days you may want to decrease the intensity of your workout, or even take a day off from your exercise routine.

Your Target Heart Rate (THR) is the heart rate you should strive to reach during exercise sessions. The simplest way to determine your THR is to take the number 220 for males, 226 for females, and subtract your age. That number is your maximum heart rate (MHR).  Beginning exercisers, elderly, and those with special medical conditions should exercise within 50- 60 percent of MHR. More advanced exercisers may strive for a higher percentage – even up to 85 – 95 percent for well-trained elite athletes. Generally, the lower the heart rate, the longer amount of time one can sustain that rate.

Of course, this method of monitoring your heart rate does require for several “pulse checks,” or for a heart rate monitor to be worn. There are several different versions of heart rate monitors, from quite simple to highly advanced. Most monitors require a chest strap to be worn, along with a wrist-worn receiver, and will give you a continuous display of your heart rate. Or you can opt for the wrist piece alone that requires you to place two fingers on either side while it reads your pulse as long as you hold your fingers in place.  You can purchase a monitor that will give you nothing more than your heart rate, or you can put out a great deal more money for one that can give you your time in your target heart rate zone, your average heart rate, the total time elapsed, and much more. Some monitors also can be connected to your PC and the information downloaded and charted for comparison over time. Heart rate monitors can cost anywhere from $30-$40 up to a couple of hundred dollars.

Another, less scientific but certainly less expensive, means of monitoring your intensity is with your Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE). The Borg RPE scale is a 1 – 20 scale which is widely used, but I have found it easier to use a scale of 1 – 10, with 1 being the easiest and no work effort at all, and 10 being the hardest effort possible. I often ask clients “How hard are you working?” Depending on their fitness level, I generally want them to respond with a 6, 7, or 8. My more advanced clients are sometimes pushed – for brief intervals – to work at a 9, while beginners or special populations may be encouraged to stay at a 5.

The bottom line is that, in order to get the results you want from your workouts, your intensity must be monitored to make sure you are in the appropriate range of effort being put forth. Whether you choose to do this subjectively or objectively, make the most of your workouts by tuning in to your intensity levels every now and then.


Meredith Nelson, M.Ed, is the owner of PrimeTime Fitness, Inc, on Sullivan’s Island.  Offering group fitness classes, PrimeTime Spin, private yoga, personal training, and monthly gym membership, Meredith divides her time between the gym on Sullivan’s Island and limited in-home training here on Daniel Island, where she resides along with her husband and two cats.  Meredith can be reached with your fitness questions at 883-0101, or Meredith@primetimefit.net.

Daniel Island Publishing

225 Seven Farms Drive
Unit 108
Daniel Island, SC 29492 

Office Number: 843-856-1999
Fax Number: 843-856-8555


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