The secret is to optimize your heart rate…

Some people think of exercise as money in the bank—the more they do, the greater the dividend. But wouldn’t it be nice to also know that you’re getting the highest rate of return on your exercise “investment”?

What many people don’t realize: The key to heart health is this—how hard you exercise is more important than how long. Why? Because intensity of exercise and duration are inversely related. The higher the exercise intensity, the less time needed to get the health and fitness benefits.

What works best: Checking your heart rate is the easiest and most effective method to get the biggest health boost from your exercise.


A large Norwegian study indicated that tracking daily fluctuations in heart rate can benefit everyone who exercises. While many of the new, multipurpose fitness trackers and apps are good for measuring the calories you’ve burned…how far you’ve walked (or run)…and perhaps even how many hours you’ve slept, you really need to know your heart rate to maximize the cardioprotective benefits of exercise.

Why heart rate matters: Measuring your heart rate is a good way to estimate energy expenditure, the amount of oxygen that you use during exercise. The bigger the increase between your resting heart rate and your heart rate during exercise, the greater the energy expenditure and associated benefits that you’ll accrue from exercise.

Caution: It’s possible to do too much exercise, since extremely high heart rates in some people may trigger acute cardiac events—ask your doctor for advice on your target heart rate.*


A fast run will obviously boost your heart rate more than a leisurely saunter, but it’s not always so easy to tell just how hard you are exercising. In fact, a study published in PLOS ONE found that only about 25% of participants who thought that they were exercising at a moderate pace actually achieved it…the rest were just taking easy strolls.

Bonus: Tracking one’s heart rate can also be motivating—it allows people to see exactly how hard they’re exercising and shows when they need to increase their exercise intensity.


Fitness gadgets are fun for those who are technologically inclined, but you might prefer to stick to the old-fashioned method—by checking your own pulse before and during exercise. And that’s just fine!

You probably know how to check your heart rate—just put your index and middle fingers on the artery on the thumb side of your wrist, count the beats for 10 seconds and multiply by six.

Don’t make this mistake: Pressing too hard on the neck can slow the pulse rate. That’s why I recommend using the wrist instead or pressing gently on the neck.

The average resting heart rate in adults is 60 to 100 beats a minute, according to the National Institutes of Health. What I like to see: A heart rate between 50 and 75. An exception is endurance athletes—they often have readings below 50.

Caution: A consistent reading at rest of 90 or higher could signify poor fitness, anxiety, stress or heart rhythm irregularities that may require medical attention.

Here’s where it gets tricky: Energy expenditure is measured in metabolic equivalents (METs). One MET equals the amount of oxygen your body uses when resting. Each 10-beat increase over your resting heart rate approximates one additional MET. Your target heart rate is the heart rate that you want to achieve during exercise. For example, for healthy adults age 65 and older, moderate-intensity activity approximates 3 to 4 METs—and a 20- to 30-beat increase above the resting heart rate. Vigorous exercise for these individuals is about 5 METs or higher with heartbeat increases of 40 or more.

Example: If you take your pulse while sitting on the couch, your resting heart rate might be 70 beats per minute. During a walk, it could reach 95 beats. Those 25 extra beats mean that you have increased your energy expenditure by about 2.5 METs over rest (1 MET), so you are working at 3.5 METs—or a moderate level of intensity.

Now, suppose that you play a game of doubles tennis and check your pulse again. Your heart rate might have risen to 110 beats. That’s a 4-MET increase over rest, meaning that you are now exercising at about 5 METs. This means you’ve reached a vigorous level of activity. Typical goal if you are a middle-aged or young adult: About 4 to 5 METs for moderate-intensity activity…and 6 to 8 METs for vigorous activity.

If you have been inactive, here’s a secret—exercise that increases your heart rate as little as 20 to 30 beats per minute will greatly decrease your risk for future cardiac events.


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