Target Heart Rate, Perceived Exertion and The Talk Test All Have Merits.

Find Your Pulse!  It’s Time For The 10 Second Heart Rate Check!

Remember the day when at some point during a group fitness class the instructor would call out that it was time for everyone to take their heart rate.  The class would stop, shuffle their feet around, and put two fingers on their carotid artery and count their pulse for ten seconds.  Then you would look at a which would tell you if you were working too hard, not hard enough, or doing it just right.

Over the years exercise programs have evolved. Classes like Body Pump where the heart rate goes up and down throughout the workout, Pilates where it’s not necessary to take a heart rate, and Zumba where a method of perceived exertion might be more effective, has helped fade out the colorful heart rate chart that hung on the walls of fitness centers.

Being mindful of how hard you are working, however, is still important.  The biggest misconception that people make is that they are exerting themselves more than they actually are. Continually staying below your cardio target zone will limit your ability to achieve your weight loss or fitness goals.

The three primary ways to gauge exertion are Target Heart Rate, Rated Perceived Exertion and the Talk Test.

Target Heart Rate (THR)

The standard calculation for maximum heart rate is 220 minus age.  This basic calculation is what we used when the instructor told us to take our heart rate for 10 seconds. We would find our age on the chart and follow it across to see if we were in the 60, 70, or 80% range.

This one-size-fits-all measurement doesn’t take into consideration individual fitness levels.  An unconditioned person will reach that upper range very quickly while someone that has excellent cardio capacity may have to really push to get their heart rate that high.  The inaccuracies in measuring levels of exertion this way have led to it being viewed as obsolete.

on-line tool Flickr photo by Brett Jordan

There is an speed drills or interval training that will get you to a more accurate ‘personal’ THR as will a heart rate monitor like a Garmin or Polar. If you’re serious about maintaining a specific THR throughout your workout – for example, you want to stay in the mid 70% range throughout and push up to 90% withled a study that determined – purchasing a heart rate monitor would be a good investment.

Wearing a heart rate monitor can also provide the motivation you need to work hard enough to get up into the 80% range for endurance training or stay in the lower 60% range if fat burning is your goal.

On a Scale From Six to Twenty, How Hard Do You Feel Like You’re Working?

Borg Perceived Exertion Scale:

6 – No exertion at all
7 – Extremely light (7.5)
9 – Very light
11- Light
13 – Somewhat hard
15 – Hard (heavy)
17 – Very hard
19  Extremely hard
20  Maximal exertion

The perceived exertion method to measure exercise intensity was developed by Gunnar Borg in 1998 and has replaced the Target Heart Rate chart in many fitness centers.   An individual determines what their perceived exertion is and multiplies that number by 10 which will give them their approximate heart rate.  For example, if I feel like I’m at 9 on the Borg scale, my heart rate should be approximately 90 beats per minute.

This method has replaced counting heart beats in some arenas because it is more individual and if people are completely honest with themselves, will tell them if they need to work harder or slow down.

The Talk Test

The talk test has been around for a while.  Basically if you can carry on a full conversation with the person on the treadmill next to you, you need to pick up the pace.

Timothy J. Quinn, a professor at the University of New Hampshire improvements in cardiovascular fitnesswhere participant’s heart rates were based upon how well they were able to carry on a conversation.  If you are able to recite the Pledge of Allegiance you are probably exercising at about 80% of your target heart rate.  If you can’t spit the pledge out, but can say a few words you’re probably in the 90% range.

Beginner exercisers should exercise for 30 minutes a day at intensity where they can carry on a conversation.  If you’re already physically active and are looking to increase your endurance, you will need to increase the intensity to the point where “talking becomes difficult in at least some of your weekly workouts.” If you want to see improvements in cardiovascular fitness you have to be willing to work hard enough that you’re not able to talk.  Not talk much, at least.

All Of The Methods Have Merit

All of these methods allow you an opportunity to challenge yourself to take your fitness to the next level.  The key is to make sure you’re working hard enough to reach your goals, but not so hard that you get so discouraged and exhausted that you have to take the next three days off.  Whatever method you use is up to you.  Increasing awareness of what zone you’re in and asking the question, “Am I working out hard enough to make a difference?” is the first step.