Making Sense Of Target Heart Rates, Training Zones & Maximum Heart Rates

Physical exercise


By Joy Stephenson-Laws, JD, Founder


Be honest. Do you really understand those heart rate charts attached to the treadmills, elliptical trainers and stair climbers at the gym, or the cardio workouts these machines automatically program for you when you enter your age and weight? What about all the different heart rate zones and targets that you can program into your smartwatch or smartphone apps? More importantly, do you know how to use this information to get and keep your heart as healthy as you can? If you’re like most people, the answer is probably a resounding “no.”

Using your heart rate to monitor and maximize the benefits of your exercise can seem confusing and complicated – especially if you’re just about to start being proactive about heart health. But once you understand the basics, it’s actually pretty straightforward. Combine this information with healthy lifestyle choices, and you’ll be well on your way to getting and keeping your heart and cardiovascular system as healthy as possible.  

A good place to start understanding all this is defining exactly what each heart rate term means, what it measures and how to use it as part of your heart health exercise program.

Resting and Maximum Heart Rates

These are the starting points for developing your personal cardio exercise plan for improving both the strength and the health of your heart and cardiovascular system. As its name implies, your resting heart rate is how many times your heart beats per minute when you are not engaged in any physical activity.

According to the American Heart Association, for most people this is between 60 and 100 beats per minute. A good time to check your resting heart rate is when you get up in the morning (and before you have had your coffee!).  

The lower the number the better, because it means that your heart doesn’t have to work as hard to maintain a steady beat and effectively do its job of circulating blood. Credible research suggests that higher resting heart rates have been linked to higher blood pressure and body weight. Someone who is in really great shape, such as an athlete, could have a resting heart rate as low as 40 beats per minute. Other factors that can impact your resting heart rate include stress and anxiety, medication you may be taking and changes in hormone levels (which can occur during menopause, pregnancy or menstruation).

On the other end of the spectrum is your maximum heart rate. This is the fastest your heart is capable of beating as you increase the intensity of whatever physical activity you may be doing. While there are more than 40 different formulas for calculating this maximum, perhaps the most common – and easiest for the average person to use – are the 220-age (also known as the Fox formula) and Tanaka methods.

To use the first, simply subtract your age from 220 to calculate your estimated maximum heart rate. So, for example, if you are 50-years-old, your maximum heart rate would be 170.  

And to use the Tanaka formula, you calculate 206.9 minus (0.67*AGE). So at 50-years-old, your maximum heart rate would be 173 (173.4 to be exact), which is not that far off from the 220-age formula. I prefer to use the 220-age, because it is the easiest to calculate!

If you’re wondering why age is the key variable in these formulas, it’s simply because our maximum heart rate declines with age much in the same way as kidney function and lung capacity decline as we get older. You also may be wondering about the urban myth that says your heart will explode if you try to exceed your maximum heart rate. Don’t worry – the answer is “no.” The body is excellent when it comes to self-protection. In fact, there is far more risk to your health of not doing enough exercise than overdoing it. Of course, you should first speak with a competent healthcare practitioner before starting any kind of exercise program or activity that may push your heart rate toward its maximum for your age.

One last note about maximum heart rate. Like most things in life, just because you can do something doesn’t mean you have to do it. Trying to hit your maximum heart rate during exercise is not something most of us should aim for, because doing so could leave us exhausted or even injured. It can also impact appetite, sleep patterns and even our immune systems over time.

Target Heart Rate and Training Heart Rate Zones

Your maximum heart rate is used as the basis for calculating the intensity, level of effort and other variables of your personal cardio exercise program. This is because different exercise programs and goals have different optimal heart rates or target heart rate zones. For example, if your aim is to reduce your body fat, you need to work for a target heart rate that falls within the fat-burning target heart rate zone of between 60 percent and 70 percent of your maximum heart rate. So, if your maximum heart rate is, let’s say, 170, to burn mostly fat for energy you would want to go for a target heart rate of between 102 and 119.

If your goal is to burn the most calories possible in the shortest amount of time possible as well as give your heart a good workout, you would want your target heart rate to fall within the aerobic zone of 70 percent to 80 percent of your maximum heart rate. Using the same maximum heart rate of 170, to get the most aerobic (cardio) benefit from your activity you would aim for a target heart rate of between 119 and 136. So if weight loss is your goal, go for this higher zone.

There are a few things worth noting about target heart rate zones. The first is that there is ongoing debate and discussion about the benefits of the fat-burning zone versus the aerobic zone for reducing body fat and losing weight. Current beliefs are that an approach known as “interval training,” where you alternate between the lower intensity (fat-burning) and higher intensity (aerobic) exercises may give you the best results. In fact, many gyms offer interval training in group classes. Other experts believe, however, that the heart rates reached during the intervals will tend to average out to the rate you would have reached if you just did something in between (also known as “steady state.”).

It’s also good to keep in mind that your heart rate is a reaction to the work you’re doing – whether walking or doing high-intensity training – rather than a measurement of actual work. For example, someone in really good shape may have a lower heart rate while hiking than someone who is not in good shape doing the same hike. The latter would have a much higher heart rate, even though both are probably doing about the same amount of activity. No matter which type of training you decide on, do at least 150 minutes of exercise per week. This is the minimum you’ll need to get any health benefits.  

Diet and Lifestyle Impact Heart Rate

Your physical activity isn’t the only thing that increases your maximum heart rate. Your diet and lifestyle choices also play an important role in regulating how quickly (or slowly) your heart beats which can, in turn, impact the effectiveness of your cardio exercises. Some medications can also impact your maximum heart rate, which means you would need to calculate a different target heart rate for your exercises.  

Some foods or eating habits that can impact your heart rate include:

  • Eating a large meal – this can increase your heart rate due to the demand it puts on your digestive system
  • Following a Mediterranean-type diet – according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), this diet has proven to have a positive effect on lowering heart rate
  • Getting enough of specific nutrients – the NIH also reported that omega-3 fatty acids (think fish), B-vitamins (found in foods such as green vegetables and whole grains) and probiotics can help lower heart rate
  • Maintaining a healthy weight – in addition to its many other health benefits, watching your weight can play a role in regulating and lowering your heart rate
  • Taking dietary supplements – some supplements, such as bitter orange, ephedra, ginseng and valerian, can cause heart palpitations
  • Low-fat dairy in your diet – research indicates that low-fat milk products, such as low-fat cheese and yogurt, can lower heart rate
  • Enjoying red wine – in moderation, red wine can assist in lowering heart rate
  • Getting enough key “heart minerals”magnesium, calcium, potassium and sodium are critical for heart health and maintaining an optimal resting heart rate


I hope you take all of this information to heart!


Enjoy your healthy life!


The pH professional health care team includes recognized experts from a variety of health care and related disciplines, including physicians, attorneys, nutritionists, nurses and certified fitness instructors. This team also includes the members of the pH Medical Advisory Board, which constantly monitors all pH programs, products and services. To learn more about the pH Medical Advisory Board, click here.


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