You know doctors recommend 150 minutes of cardiovascular activity every week, but how do you know that you're getting all the benefits from your exercises? You can determine roughly how hard your body is working, and when you're getting the most benefits of your exercise, by understanding target heart rate zones. 

What are target heart rate zones? 

Target heart rate zones are five ranges of heart rates that generally determine how much effort a person is putting forth in their exercise. The higher the heart rate, the more the body is using carbohydrates and protein for energy, instead of fat. 

Heart rate zones vary from person to person—someone who is younger or more physically active will have different target zones than a person who is older or currently less physically active—so they're described as percentages of maximum heart rate. 

  • Zone 1 - moderate to low intensity, at 50 to 60 percent of maximum heart rate 
  • Zone 2 - moderate intensity, at 60 to 70 percent of maximum heart rate 
  • Zone 3 - moderate to high intensity, at 70 to 80 percent of maximum heart rate 
  • Zone 4 - high intensity, at 80 to 90 percent of maximum heart rate 
  • Zone 5 - very high intensity, at 90 to 100 percent of maximum heart rate 

What is maximum heart rate and how is it determined? 

Your maximum heart rate (MHR) represents the highest number of beats per minute (bpm) that your heart can safely handle. The gold standard for determining your MHR is an exercise stress test; however, you can estimate your maximum heart rate by subtracting your age from 220. For example, if you are 40 years old, you would subtract 40 from 220 for a maximum heart rate of 180 beats per minute. 

How do you determine exercise intensity? 

The American College of Sports Medicine recommends heart rate zones of 50 to 85 percent for the average exerciser and 85 to 95 percent for those training using high intensity interval training (HIIT). So for our 40 year old in the example above, as an average exerciser, they would aim for 90 to 153 bpm during an exercise session, or 153 to 171 bpm for an HIIT interval. 

Most fitness trackers can estimate your heart rate, making it easy to track. A foolproof method, without using technology, is the "Talk Test" to measure intensity. Numerous studies have found that the point at which conversation is no longer possible directly relates to vigorous exercise. Moderate exercise results in faster breathing, but you can still talk (or talk but not sing). Low intensity exercise causes no change in breathing during conversation. If you are exercising with a buddy, monitor your breathing during conversation. If you're on your own, try reciting a poem or a repeating a phrase to assess your breathing. 

If you are taking medications that impact your heart rate, such as beta blockers, you may not be able to use the estimated MHR to determine your heart rate zone, since you could potentially push yourself too hard in an attempt to reach your MHR. 

Ready to start an exercise program? 

Before starting a new exercise program, speak with your doctor, especially if you are on medications for heart conditions. If you are unsure if you should see your physician before engaging in a program, you can easily assess your readiness using the Physical Activity Readiness Questionnaire (PAR-Q)

If you are already exercising, tell your physician if you develop any signs or symptoms that include: 

  • lightheadedness 
  • dizziness 
  • chest pain or tightness 
  • excessive shortness of breath 
  • joint pain

If you want to start an exercise program but have a known heart or lung condition, talk to your doctor about Lifespan's Center for Cardiac, Pulmonary, and Vascular Fitness. Our programs help patients with cardiovascular and/or pulmonary diseases lead emotionally, physically and nutritionally healthier lives. And for more tips on healthy living, visit the Lifespan Living blog.

Julianne DeAngelis

Julianne DeAngelis is the program manager for Cardiac, Pulmonary and Vascular Rehabilitation at the Lifespan Cardiovascular Institute