Understanding Your Maximum Heart Rate

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If you've spent any time exercising, you probably know all about working in your target heart rate (HR) zone to burn the most calories and get the most out of your workout time. A big part of that HR calculation involves your maximum heart rate (MHR).

What Is Maximum Heart Rate?

Your maximum heart rate (MHR) refers to the fastest rate at which your heart will beat in one minute. If you're using a heart rate monitor to track your intensity, you definitely need your MHR.

The important thing to note is that, unless you're in a laboratory setting where you can be hooked up to machines, it's tough to get pinpoint accuracy of your MHR. So, we do the next best thing which is to make an informed guess.

Age-Based MHR Formulas

For many years, the typical formula for calculating your maximum heart rate was 220 minus age. Eventually, experts realized there's a big problem with that particular formula, as it doesn't reflect the differences in heart rate according to age.

MHR actually decreases as we age. One reason is that getting older actually depresses the sinoatrial node, the natural pacemaker for the heart. That's something the old formula doesn't take into account.

In fact, there's some suggestion that using that formula to calculate heart rate could give you numbers that are way off, maybe by as much as 12 beats per minute up or down. That's a huge gap.

Luckily, experts have come up with a more accurate formula, offered in a study published in Journal, Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise.

Maximum Heart Rate Formula

206.9 - (0.67 x age)

Maximum Heart Rate Facts

These points can help you understand what your MHR means and doesn't mean. Various factors impact MHR, but there are also lots of misconceptions.

  • Age: Your MHR can decline as you age.
  • Altitude: Altitude can lower your MHR.
  • Fitness: MHR has nothing to do with how physically fit you are and doesn't reflect your level of fitness.
  • Genes: Your MHR is influenced by your genes.
  • Individual differences: MHR can vary significantly even among people of the same age and sex.
  • Size: MHR is usually higher in smaller people, which is why women often have a higher MHR than men.
  • Working out: Training doesn't really change your MHR and, if there is any change, it may get lower as your body experiences expanded blood and stroke volumes.

Use MHR to Determine Exercise Intensity

If you use the calculation above, you come up with a number that equals that maximum amount of beats your heart will beat in 1 minute. Using that information, you can actually figure out how hard to work during exercise based on your level of fitness.

  • If you're very sedentary with no exercise at all, you should work at about 57% to 67% of your MHR.
  • If you engage in minimal activity, you should work at 64% to 74% of your MHR.
  • If you sporadically exercise, you should work at 74% to 84% of your MHR.
  • If you regularly exercise, you should work at 80% to 91% of your MHR.
  • If you exercise a lot at high intensities, you should work at 84% to 94% of your MHR.

MHR Formula Example

Below is an example of how to use the formula to calculate a maximum heart rate for someone who is 45 years old:

(206.9) - (0.67 x 45) = 176 beats per minute 

Now, use that to figure out how hard to work. Say you're a sporadic exerciser, so you're shooting for a minimum of 74% and up to 84% of your max heart rate which, if you're 45, is 176 beats per minute. That means you would have a heart rate zone of 130 beats per minute at the lower end and up to 148 beats per minute at the higher end.

That's just a general guideline to follow and the best way to get more specific with these numbers is to note how hard you're working at different levels of intensity, or your perceived exertion.

This ​perceived exertion chart gives you a 1 to 10 scale to use to mentally determine how you feel at different intensities. Say you're working at 148 beats per minute. You might match that to a level on the perceived exertion scale. As you practice doing that, you'll get a better idea of what you can handle and when you need to speed up or slow down.

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  1. New York Times, "'Maximum' Heart Rate Theory Is Challenged." April 24, 2001.

  2. Larson ED, St Clair JR, Sumner WA, Bannister RA, Proenza C. Depressed pacemaker activity of sinoatrial node myocytes contributes to the age-dependent decline in maximum heart rate. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA. 2013;110(44):18011-6. doi:10.1073/pnas.1308477110

  3. Gellish RL, Goslin BR, Olson RE, McDonald A, Russi GD, Moudgil VK. Longitudinal modeling of the relationship between age and maximal heart rate. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2007;39(5):822-9. doi:10.1097/mss.0b013e31803349c6

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