Using Your Target Heart Rate to Maximize Your Workouts

Woman checking her heart rate

Verywell / Ryan Kelly

Knowing how hard you need to exercise helps you reach your goals more quickly. It also ensures that you don't push your body too much, making exercise unsafe. Working out in a target heart rate zone can help ensure your workout is safe and beneficial.

Cardiovascular exercise relies on frequency, intensity, and duration to be effective. You know how often you exercise and for how long, but you need to know your heart rate to judge your intensity. Learn more about the effects of each of the five heart rate zones and how to use them in your cardio workouts.

What Is Heart Rate?

Your heart rate is the number of beats your heart completes each minute. Heart rate is also known as pulse and is what you feel when you press your wrist or neck to check your pulse. Your heart rate changes constantly based on what you are doing. It changes with physical activity and in response to an emotional stimulus such as excitement or anxiety.

Resting Heart Rate

Resting heart rate (RHR) is the number of beats per minute your heart completes when you are completely at rest. It is the lowest rate your heart usually beats since you are not being active. This rate should be measured when you are resting (sitting or lying down), without any emotional stimulus or illness influencing the rate. A normal resting heart rate for an adult is considered to be between 60 and 100 beats per minute (bpm).

Maximum Heart Rate

Maximum heart rate (MHR) is as fast as your heart can beat. One way to estimate it is 220 minus your age (so if you are 35 years old, your MHR is 185). However, this is just a guess, and your actual maximum heart rate is likely different.

Target Heart Rate

Target heart rate is a goal of how fast you want your heart rate to be while exercising. It helps indicate the intensity you are working. Your estimate for your target heart rate is just a guess, but it gives you an idea of how hard you work during exercise. Your target heart rate will depend on your current fitness level and age, which means it will change as you become fitter or older.

How to Find Your Target Heart Rate

This calculator uses a simple age-graded estimation of your MHR. Then, the chart below multiplies it by your chosen percentage to show various target heart rate zones.

Maximum Heart Rate Formula

206.9 - (0.67 x age)

This and other MHR prediction equations are the subjects of ongoing research since they tend to underestimate the MHR for people over age 30. That means that if you are older than 30, it may be more accurate to use +11/-11 deviation from the number as a more acceptable range.

So if you are 35 years of age with a maximum heart rate of 183 (calculated using the formula above), the estimate would be between 172 to 194. The maximum heart rate may be a little higher for women and older adults.

Some fitness trackers or smartwatches automatically measure your resting heart rate and then use that information to suggest and measure the target heart rate. An advantage of using these devices to find your target heart rate is that the manufacturer can easily update them to match the current research-backed zones. 

Heart Rate Chart

Use this target heart rate chart to determine your heart rate in four exercise intensity zones. Select your age to find an estimated maximum heart rate (MHR) zone and the range of beats per minute in each zone: low intensity, moderate intensity, vigorous intensity, and the aerobic zone.

Age Low Intensity (57%-63%)  Moderate Intensity (64%-76%)      Aerobic  Zone (70%-80%)      Vigorous Intensity (77%-95%)      Maximum Intensity (96%-100%)    
25 95-114 114-134 133-152 143-162  190
35  92-110  110-128  128-147  138-156  183 
45  88-106  106-124  124-141  133-150  177 
55  95-102 102-119 119-136 128-145 170
65  82-98 98-114 114-131 123-139 163
75  78-94 94-110 110-125 117-133 157

How to Use Heart Rate Zones

When it comes to heart rate zone training, you can mix it up and enjoy moderate-intensity exercise on some days and vigorous on others. You get different fitness benefits by exercising in different heart rate (HR) zones. In each zone, you will feel a different level of exertion.

Low-Intensity Zone

Working at 57% to 63% of your maximum heart rate means you are in the low-intensity zone. Exercising at this intensity can help relieve stress and reduce the health risks associated with a sedentary lifestyle. Low-intensity exercise can boost your mood, lower blood pressure, improve endurance, and is excellent for cardiovascular health.

Training within this zone is beneficial if you recover from a more intense exercise session. Many forms of flexibility and strength exercises are also lower intensity, but they are still crucial for your muscles and physical condition.

Low-Intensity Exercise Options

Moderate-Intensity Zone

Moderate-intensity training is performed at 64% to 76% of your maximum heart rate. This intensity level is typically recommended for building fitness and burning calories for weight balance. For health and fitness benefits, aim to exercise in the moderate-intensity zone for 30 minutes per day, five days per week for at least 150 total minutes per week.

The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommend up to 300 minutes (5 hours) per week for additional benefits. Moderate-intensity exercise improves oxygen transportation throughout your body, boosting heart health.

Moderate-Intensity Exercise Options

Vigorous-Intensity Zone

You are training in the vigorous-intensity zone at 77% to 95% of your maximum heart rate. The physical activity guidelines recommend 75 minutes of vigorous activity per week.Alternatively, you can perform moderate and vigorous activity for up to 150 minutes, which will likely be easier to sustain and recover from.

This zone spurs your body to improve your circulatory system by building new blood vessels and increasing your heart and lung capacity. Exercising at the high end of this range (84% MHR or higher) will improve the amount of oxygen you can consume—your VO2 max.

This exertion level takes you to the limit where your body begins to produce lactic acid. Runners, cyclists, and racewalkers use this zone to build their ability to go even faster.

Vigorous-Intensity Exercise Options

Maximum-Intensity Zone

You are pushing as hard as possible at the maximum-intensity level (96% to 100% of your MHR), such as with high-intensity interval training or sprinting. You can't work any harder. Most people can't stay in this zone for more than a few minutes. You will be unable to speak except for gasping single words.

Consult your doctor to ensure you can safely work out at such a high heart rate. This zone should only be used for short bursts during interval training, where you work intensely for a minute, then drop back down to a lower intensity for several minutes, then repeat.

Maximum-intensity exercise can be very effective for improving your cardiovascular capacity and the ability to clear lactic acid. This has carryover for improvements in the other intensity zones.

How to Monitor Your Heart Rate Zone

Take your heart rate five minutes after the start of your exercise session and retake it before you go into your cool down. You can do this by taking your pulse or using a heart rate monitor, fitness tracker, or smartwatch.

Take Your Pulse

You can find your pulse at your neck (carotid artery) or wrist (radial artery). You will need a timing device that shows seconds, so switch to stopwatch mode on your smartphone clock or use a watch, clock, or timer with a second hand.

  • Use two fingers (not your thumb, which has a pulse). It is often easiest to find your pulse in the carotid arteries on either side of your windpipe. Start feeling for it just beneath your jaw, next to your windpipe.
  • Once you locate the pulse, press lightly, count your pulse for 10 seconds and multiply by six, or count for 15 seconds and multiply by four. So 20 beats for 10 seconds = 120 beats per minute; 20 beats for 15 seconds = 80 beats per minute.
  • You may need to stop to do this at first, but once you can locate it, try to keep walking slowly or marching in place while taking your pulse to keep it from slowing.

Many treadmills and other exercise machines have grips with pulse sensors built in. You grip them, and your pulse will read out on display on the machine. You usually will not have to interrupt your workout to get a reading. You can also use a mobile app.

Use a Heart Rate Monitor

Heart rate monitors with a chest strap are more accurate than taking your pulse. They transmit the data to a wrist unit or a mobile app so you can see your heart rate throughout your workout.

As prices increase, models include many other features, such as tracking your heart rate zones, stopwatch features, calories burned, and more. Different heart rate monitors have pulse monitors where you place one or two fingers on a sensor for a reading.

Many heart rate monitors offer the ability to pre-program multiple heart rate zones. This is beneficial if you do different intensity workouts because you won't have to reprogram it each time. Some will even tell you how long it takes to return to your resting heart rate.

Use a Fitness Tracker or Smart Watch

Some fitness trackers and smartwatches, such as some models of Fitbit and the Apple Watch, have LED pulse sensors on the underside next to the skin. These must be worn securely against the skin to get a stable and accurate reading.

To save battery life, many of them don't read continuously. See the instructions for your device to see how to get an on-demand or continuous pulse reading.

These devices often have simplified heart rate zones, such as light, moderate, and vigorous. Some allow you to set a target heart rate and have a visual or auditory alert when you are in your chosen zone.

A Word From Verywell

Working in each heart rate zone has its benefits. Using each is a fantastic way to build cardiovascular health, improve endurance, encourage healthy weight balance, prevent disease, and improve mood. You will also find more variety in your workout routines if you add activities from each zone. Before starting any new fitness routine, speak to your doctor about your current fitness and possible limitations.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is a normal heart rate range?

    A normal resting heart rate range for an adult is between 60 and 100 beats per minute (bpm). Heart rate rises with activity, to a maximum of approximately 220 minus your age.

  • Which is the easiest way to measure your heart rate?

    The easiest way to measure your heart rate is to use a heart rate monitor or fitness tracker such as a watch. However, using your fingers on your pulse while watching the clock is also easy. Find your pulse on your wrist or neck, press lightly and count the beats for 10 seconds and multiply by six, or count for 15 seconds and multiply by four to calculate beats per minute.

  • What happens if you go over your maximum heart rate?

    Technically, you cannot go over your true maximum heart rate since it is by definition, the maximum your heart rate can go. Your maximum or near maximum heart rate is only sustainable for a very short period of time.

  • Is “220 minus your age” accurate to calculate your MHR?

    The 220 minus your age estimate is just that—an estimate. However, it has been studied extensively to be fairly accurate as an ideal maximum heart rate. Your individual rate will be unique.

  • Which is the best heart rate zone for losing weight?

    Exercise in all heart rate zones contributes to weight loss and healthy weight balance by burning calories. You will still need to create a deficit through nutrition by consuming fewer calories than you burn. Higher intensity exercise may have additional benefits since it is more time-efficient and may provide a slight after-burn effect.

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Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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Additional Reading

By Wendy Bumgardner
Wendy Bumgardner is a freelance writer covering walking and other health and fitness topics and has competed in more than 1,000 walking events.