Calculating Maximum/Maximal Heart Rate

How Effective Is Your Exercise and Workout?

By Carrie Harper, ACE Certified Personal Trainer
Our time is precious. The amount of time we spend exercising is directly proportional to the time we have for everything else. Add a full time job or two and a family, and gym time becomes crunch time. So, how do we know for sure that our body is being as efficient as we would like in that time frame? Whether our goals are increased fitness or weight management, we would like to know that we are not wasting time and that we are actually making headway toward those goals.

First, let's crunch some numbers. There are several means of calculating a maximal heart rate. The most common equation is the Karvonen equation: 220-age=maximal heart rate. That is a rough estimate, with most people falling plus or minus 12 beats to that. Some are now using 210-(.5)age. That may be closer for some. And for exercisers that are older, 65 and up, use 226-age.

In today's age of fitness, these estimates can be far from accurate because we are all so different in our level of fitness. For example, professional athletes will have a very low resting heart rate, which affects their numbers, and many young people have high resting heart rates due to inactivity and body weight, which greatly affects their numbers.

Your trainer or physical therapist can also do a maximal heart rate test for you for a better estimate. If you want to know how healthy your heart is, take your own resting heart rate when you first wake up in the morning. Wake up without an alarm clock, stay still for a few minutes, and then count your pulse for one minute. That is your approximate resting heart rate. Look at this number in comparison to your maximal heart rate. If your RHR (resting heart rate) is 75-85% lower than your MHR, you most likely have a fit and fabulous heart. 45-55% would be a tender and tired heart. If this is your level of fitness, please see a doctor before starting an exercise regimen. Anywhere in between (55-75%) would be an average heart.

Now, to determine where your heart rate should be when you are exercising, you can approximate by using the 220-age formula and multiplying it by .75-.85. That is a good average working rate for the average heart. For a more specific zone, determine your Heart Rate Reserve (HRR)= MHR-RHR.

Then, to find your parameters:

HRRx.55+RHR=low end

HRRx.65+RHR=high end

Now, many people ask how to determine how many calories that would be. Unfortunately, there is no way for the average exerciser to know. Everyone burns calories differently and everyone's metabolic rate is different. Some hospitals have a breath and heart rate monitor that can determine the actual calories burned, but the average fitness center does not have such equipment. The cardio machine at the gym that estimates how many calories you are burning is a very, very rough estimate and may be no where close to actuality.

For most people, instead of the numbers swimming through the mind the whole time they are exercising, I would use a RPE test. RPE is the rate of perceived exertion. On a scale from 1-10, how are you feeling? Are you working your absolute hardest (10) or are you just now waking up (1)? An exerciser can not stay at a 10 for very long, so please don't try! The upper RPEs are reserved to increase our stamina, not for calorie burning. In fact, this is the anaerobic threshold, where the body is no longer burning but conserving calories. In a solid cardio workout, where the heart rate stays evenly elevated for 20-90 minutes, the RPE should be around a 6 throughout. In an interval workout, alternate between a 3-4 and a 7-8 for the workout. This type of workout will increase stamina, strengthen the heart, challenge the muscles involved, and burn more calories. However, the constant cardio workout is important as well. In an average regimen, make sure both of these types of cardio activity are used.

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Carrie Harper
ACE Certified Personal Trainer
ACE Certified Weight Management Consultant

Carrie Harper is a long time PEERtrainer member. She has been helping people with health and fitness goals since 1994, where she started teaching group exercise at The Florida State University. She is certified in personal training and in weight management consulting through the American Council on Exercise. Carrie is also a full time elementary music teacher and a full time mom. She still enjoys teaching group exercise at Family Fitness in Lake Jackson, Texas, where she works with individuals and groups with their fitness, health, and weight loss goals. Carrie also works with students and is passionate about ending the obesity crisis in today's youth. She also tackles women's health issues, including training for women with diastasis recti, or training after childbirth.

If you want to be in a PEERtrainer Team with Carrie you are welcome to join her!.