Get the most out of your exercise using your heart rate

Sabina Muminović Last updated: 27 October 2023

Do you love working out, or do you just love the effects it has on your body? Either way, make sure you get the results you deserve! 

Sometimes overlooked, your heart rate during exercise can make a huge difference in how effective your workout will be, as exercising at the correct intensity can help you get the most out of your physical activity.

Let’s look at how you can determine the proper intensity for your workouts and let your heart rate turn impossible into possible!

In this article

How to measure your exercise intensity
What is a heart rate reserve?
What is a recovery heart rate?
What is a good recovery heart rate?
How can I improve my recovery heart rate?

How to measure your exercise intensity

Exercise intensity refers to how hard your body is working during physical activity. Generally, intensity during activity is described as low, moderate, or vigorous. To choose your ideal one, you should firstly decide on your health and fitness goals, and of course, consider your current level of fitness.

There are two basic ways to measure exercise intensity:

• How you feel (subjective).

Take note of how you feel while exercising and how strenuous physical activity feels to you while you’re doing it. This is called your rate of perceived exertion (RPE). Your RPE could be different from what someone else feels while exercising at the same objective intensity. Therefore, RPE is subjective!

Look out for signs like fast and deep breathing, sweating, and muscle tiredness during and after exercise. These indicate high exercise intensity.

• Your heart rate (objective).

Your heart rate offers a more objective estimate of exercise intensity. As a rule of thumb: the higher your heart rate is during physical activity, the higher the exercise intensity. Let’s dive deeper into how your heart rate can help you estimate exercise intensity.

For assessing the exercise intensity with your heart rate, you first have to figure out your maximum heart rate. Your maximum heart rate is the upper limit of what your cardiovascular system can handle during physical activity.

Standard and the easiest way to estimate your maximum heart rate is by subtracting your age from 220. For example, if you’re 35 years old, remove 35 from 220 to get a maximum rate of 185. During exercise, your heart rate generally shouldn’t extend over it. Actual maximal heart rate depends on many other factors besides your age, and it can be measured by performing endurance activity with maximal effort.

Now, you can calculate your desired target heart rate zone. This is the zone at which your heart is being exercised but not overworked.

The American Heart Association generally recommends a target heart rate of 50% to about 70% of your maximum heart rate for moderate exercise intensity and 70% to about 85% of your maximum heart rate for vigorous intensity.

If you’re a beginner and just starting in the fitness world, try aiming for the lower end of your target heart rate zone. However, if you’ve been exercising for quite some time now, and aiming for a target heart rate in the vigorous range of 70% to 85%, you can use another method to calculate it, called heart rate reserve (HRR).

A girl and a boy jogging

What is a heart rate reserve?

The heart rate reserve (HRR) is the difference between a person’s resting heart rate and maximum heart rate. The heart rate reserve has been compared with the oxygen consumption reserve (VO2R) for estimating how much aerobic energy you expend at different exertion levels during exercise.

We already told you how to calculate your maximum heart rate. It’s even more straightforward for the resting one – the easiest way to do it is by putting your thumb on your wrist or at your carotid artery and counting the beats in one minute! But make sure you do it in the morning while resting still.

For the average adult, the resting rate is usually somewhere between 60 and 100 beats per minute. It’s usually lower for athletes and indicates a more efficient, endurance-trained heart.

The formula for calculating HRR is:

HRR = HRmax – HRrest

This is how you get your heart rate reserve number!

So, if you’re aiming for training in a target heart rate in the vigorous range of 70% to 85%, follow these steps:

• Multiply your HRR by 0.7 (70%) and add your resting heart rate to this number.
• Multiply your HRR by 0.85 (85%). Add your resting heart rate to this number.

The two numbers you get are your average target heart rate zone for vigorous exercise intensity when using the HRR to calculate your heart rate. If you’re an athlete or work out a lot, your heart rate during vigorous exercise should generally be between these two numbers to get the most of your workout. You can apply the same calculation to other ranges of exercise intensity.

For example, say you are 30 years old, and you want to figure out your target heart rate zone for vigorous exercise using the HRR method.

• First, subtract 30 from 220. You get 190 — this is your maximum heart rate.
• Next, check your resting heart rate. Let’s say it’s 70 beats per minute. To calculate your HRR, you need to subtract 70 from 190. Your HRR is 120.
• Multiply 120 by 0.7 (70%) to get 84. Then add your resting heart rate, which you previously measured to be 70. You get 154, which is your first number.
• Now, multiply 120 by 0.85 (85%). You get 102. Add your resting heart rate of 70. You get 172.

This simple calculation is called the Karvonen formula. The result tells you that your target heart rate zone for vigorous exercise is from 154 to 172 beats per minute.

Easy, right?

Using your heart rate to train in this zone could benefit your workouts immensely. Research shows that interval training, which includes short bouts (from 10 seconds to 5 minutes) of higher intensity exercise (80–100% of your HRR), alternated with longer (typically 30 seconds to 10 minutes), lower intensity exercise (typically 40 to 60% HRR).  This kind of workout is highly beneficial, and can be safe even for those with heart disease and type 2 diabetes! It’s also very effective at increasing your cardiovascular fitness and promoting weight loss.

Girl setting her sport watch before starting to exercise

You’ll get the most from your workouts by exercising at the proper exercise intensity for your health and fitness goals. However, in general, only elite athletes are concerned about this level of precision.

Also, note that several medications, including some medications to lower blood pressure, can lower your maximum heart rate, and consequently, your target heart rate zone. That’s why we advise talking to your doctor or cardiologist before engaging in this type of activity. They may suggest that you have specific tests before starting to exercise in your vigorous heart rate zone – especially at the maximum effort.

It’s a fact that not everyone benefits from the same sports activities, and we know that!
If you’re looking to find the type of sport and exercise best suited to your body, you should take a look at your genetic predispositions.

Analysing your genetic predispositions to sports-related traits enables you to select the exercises that enhance your body’s natural preferences and prevent unnecessary injuries.
Identifying your genetically predisposed body characteristics with the help of a MyLifestyle DNA test is the first step in optimising your diet and training for achieving the best results.

You can find out more about the Sport and recreation DNA test here.

Another thing that can further increase your workouts and their effects on your body and cardiovascular fitness is called recovery heart rate.

We assure you it’s a term worth knowing!

What is a recovery heart rate?

Recovery heart rate (RHR) is the rate of decline in heart rate after you stop exercising. In short – if you measure your heart rate right after the cessation of exercise, and then again one and two minutes later, and subtract one from the other – the number you get is your recovery heart rate.

Your recovery rate can tell you how fast your heart recovers after a workout.

Simple as that!

For example, if your heart rate is 190 beats per minute when you finish exercising and then drops to 150 bpm the first minute later, your RHR is 40 bpm.

As you can see, you don’t need any fancy devices to calculate your recovery rate – you only need your body and a steady pulse! It’s not only relatively easy, but it’s also reproducible. You should monitor your one-minute and two-minute recovery heart rate at least twice per week to see whether your fitness level is improving. If it’s not happening, you may have to alter your workouts and make them more challenging.

What is a good recovery heart rate?

Your heart will recover quicker as you become fitter.

A recovery heart rate of 25 to 30 beats per minute is a good score, and 50 to 60 beats per minute is considered excellent!

If your 1-minute recovery heart rate is less than 13 beats or 2-minute is less than 22 beats per minute, this is a bad prognostic sign – if you have not been diagnosed with cardiovascular disease, you should consider consulting your doctor.

Recovery heart rateSource:

These numbers can be your guide for improving fitness performance or present a wake-up call to modify your lifestyle if your recovery heart rate is extremely low. There’s more to it than just being a marker of fitness level, though!

Measures of recovery heart rate are said to result from how fast your autonomic nervous system can switch from sympathetic activation to parasympathetic. They reflect the balance between the sympathetic nervous system (which activates fight and flight responses) and the parasympathetic nervous system (which starts “rest and digest” activities). Besides that, the result is a powerful predictor of mortality – a study from 1994 found that heart rate recovery is slowed in patients with chronic heart failure and accelerated in well-trained athletes. Since then, several studies have proved this same connection and showed that heart rate recovery really could be a predictor of cardiovascular disease, as well as cardiovascular and all-cause mortality.

How can I improve my recovery heart rate?

Is your recovery heart rate not as good as you expected or as you’d like it to be?

There are a few things you can do.

• Give it time.

Firstly, you can simply try waiting for a few days! Is there anything more straightforward than that? If you feel tired, if you enjoyed caffeine during the day, or lack proper hydration, your heart rate recovery time might be slower than normal.

• Improve your fitness routine.

Obviously: exercise! Working out is the best way to improve your RHR, as well as your fitness level, overall health, and … Well, we could talk about the benefits of regular exercise for ages!

Mixing slow and fast-paced cardio exercises will improve your RHR the most, so consider adding interval exercises into your training plan for the best result.

• Switch up your diet.

A diet filled with phytonutrient-rich foods will help you achieve your fitness goals more adamantly. Phytonutrients are found in plant foods and have a myriad of beneficial effects.

Foods, rich with phytonutrients are:

• Red, orange, and yellow vegetables and fruit (tomatoes, carrots, sweet potatoes, peaches, mangos, melons, citrus fruits, and berries).
• Dark green leafy vegetables (spinach, kale).
• Garlic, onions, chives and leeks.
• Whole grain products (brown rice, quinoa, barley, whole grain cereals).
• Nuts and seeds (walnuts, almonds, sunflower, sesame).
• Legumes (dried beans, peas, lentils, soy products).
• Tea and coffee (green tea, black tea and other herbal teas).

Pay attention to your hormone levels too, as they influence your heart function, reflecting on recovery heart rate.

Incorporating effective heart rate training also results in better running efficiency, may ultimately improve health, decrease resting heart rate, and improve your recovery heart rate.

Doing the things you should be doing to improve your overall fitness level will also benefit your heart rate recovery and reserve! To see the changes faster and quickly boost your RHR, try optimising the quality and the quantity of your sleep, getting enough exercise, proper hydration and nutrition, avoiding alcohol, and practising meditation.

This will not only positively influence your heart and fitness level, but your general well-being, longevity, and outlook on life as well.


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