Maximum Heart Rate Formula for Women

Traditional calculations overestimate results for females

Mature women jogging in park, checking heart rate monitor wrist watch
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Trainers, fitness trackers, and most of the cardio machines at your gym urge you to know your maximum heart rate (MHR) to get the most effective workout. But there's a problem for women: the target heart-rate formulas that have been used for decades were derived from research on men, and they appear to overestimate maximum heart rate for women. A female-specific formula better predicts a woman's maximum heart rate based on her age.

Research on Maximum Heart Rate Formulas

Cardiologist Martha Gulati first proposed this female-specific MHR formula in a 2002 study. In investigating women's heart rates in response to exercise, Gulati and her colleagues concluded that "the traditional estimate of the maximum heart rate for age with exercise, based on a male standard, appears to be an overestimate in women."

Other researchers validated these results by having more than 19,000 people take a special treadmill test (a highly accurate measure of an individual's maximum heart rate). Their findings also suggested that "a separate formula for peak HR in women appears to be appropriate."

These studies showed that both the traditional formula used to calculate maximum heart rate—220 minus age, known as the Fox formula—and an updated version that better accounts for age—206.9 minus (0.67 * age), called the Tanaka formula—overestimate maximum heart rate for women.

The Gulati Formula for Maximum Heart Rate in Women

Gulati and her colleagues wanted to find an accurate peak heart rate for women in order to predict future health. They also wanted to make sure women recovering from heart problems were given the right exercise intensity goals while they were recuperating. Given an incorrect result, women might try to work too hard during exercise, which could be dangerous.

The team came up with a new formula to calculate maximum heart rate for women: 206 minus (0.88 * age) = MHR

Comparing Formula Results

Take a look at how target heart rate zones would be different using the female-specific maximum heart rate formula. Say you're a 49-year-old woman with a resting heart rate (RHR) of 65:

  • Fox formula (men and women): 220 - 49 = 171 beats per minute MHR
  • Tanaka formula (men and women): 206.9 - (0.67 * 49) = 174 beats per minute MHR
  • Gulati formula (women only): 206 - (0.88 * 49) = 163 beats per minute MHR

But there's another factor to consider. If you derive target heart zones using the Karvonen formula, which accounts for resting heart rate, you get different results. For a suggested exercise zone between 65 percent and 85 percent maximum, you get these ranges:

  • Fox formula: 133 to 155 beats per minute
  • Tanaka formula: 136 to 158 beats per minute
  • Gulati formula: 129 to 148 beats per minute

You can see how different these numbers are.

This suggests that some women may be struggling to get to a certain intensity. They may be fit, but their maximum heart rate has been overestimated, making it harder for them to achieve it.

The Bottom Line

If you're a woman, use the Gulati formula combined with the Karvonen formula to get the best information on your target heart rate. However, unless you're an elite athlete or a cardiac patient, you may not need to pinpoint your target heart rate when you exercise. Instead, following the scale of perceived exertion may be all you need.

It's important to note that in reality, all of these formulas are based on population statistics—for any given woman, her actual maximum heart rate can vary significantly from one that formulas provide. The only way to really know your own maximum heart rate is to have it measured on a maximal treadmill test.

Even the best formulas can only make an estimate of your maximum heart rate. This is another reason the perceived exertion scale is often the most practical way to estimate how hard you are working.

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Article Sources
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