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How To Monitor Your Exercise Intensity

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Updated April 09, 2014

When it comes to exercise, how hard you work can make a big difference in how many calories you burn and your ability to build stamina and endurance. There are a number of ways to monitor your intensity to make sure you're working in your target heart rate zone, which will help you get the most out of your exercise time.

Get Your Target Heart Rate Zone

Your target heart rate (THR) describes the pulse rate (in beats per minute) that allows you to exercise safely while getting the maximum benefits from your workout. This range is usually between 50% to 85% of your maximum heart rate. You can calculate target heart rate with any number of formulas:

  • Karvonen Formula - Your heart rate reserve is calculated by using age and resting heart rate
  • Steven's Creek THR Formula - This online calculator involves different max heart rates according to gender and fitness level, which makes the results a bit more accurate
  • Online calculators - If you're math-phobic, like me, use an online calculator to do the work for you

Keep in mind that the results from THR formulas are just guidelines. If you follow your THR zone and realize you're either working way too hard or not hard enough, you'll know to adjust those numbers to fit how you're feeling. I find it's best to use your THR along with your perceived exertion to get the most accurate target heart rate measurements.

How to Monitor Your THR by Taking Your Pulse

One way to find out how hard you're working without any extra equipment is to take your pulse throughout your workout. Place your index and middle fingers directly under your ear, then slide your fingers down until they are directly under your jawbone, pressing lightly. Start with zero on the first beat and count for 10 seconds, then multiply by six, which gives you an approximation of your heart rate in beats per minute. For example, if you count 20 beats in 10 seconds, your approximate heart rate would be 120 beats per minute. Check your pulse frequently throughout your workout to make sure you are within your target heart rate zone.

Use a Heart Rate Monitor

Using a heart rate monitor makes it easy to keep up with your exercise intensity because they show a continuous reading of your heart rate throughout your workout. Monitor's range anywhere from $50 to $300, offering a variety of options whether you're a beginner or advanced athlete. Most use a chest strap to get heart rate info and some offer added features such as calories burned and time spent in target heart rate zone.

Use the Talk Test If you don't have a heart rate monitor or don't want to stop your workout to take your pulse, the Talk Test is another way to monitor your intensity. If you're working at a moderate intensity, you should be able to carry on a conversation. Unless you're doing high intensity training or interval training, you shouldn't be so out of breath you that you can't talk. It can help to use a Perceived Exertion Scale along with the Talk Test. This is a scale of 1-10 for describing how hard you're working, 1 being extremely easy and 10 being extremely hard. If you're doing a moderate workout, this would translate to a Level 5 on the scale. You can also use the more official Borg Rating of Perceived Exertion which assigns level of intensity from 6 (no exertion) to 20 (maximal exertion).

For more information about exercise intensity, check out The Truth About The Fat Burning Zone.

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