Are you seeing the results you want from your fitness program? If you’re like us, you probably spend at least one hour per day exercising, five to six times per week.
So, why the hell isn’t it working?!
You probably think about exercise in terms of quantity, but you also need to think about it in terms of quality: A calorie is not just a calorie and a workout is not just a workout.
According to a recent article in The New York Times: “Many of us underestimate how hard we should exercise to achieve maximum health benefits, and overestimate how vigorously we are actually working out.”
In other words, even if you walk on the treadmill one hour per day, five to six times per week, you’re likely not doing it at a high enough intensity level to move the needle on the scale. Keep in mind that any time you spend being active will improve your overall health, but if you have a specific weight loss goal, it’s critical you work out at the intensity level that will deliver maximum results.
One way to make sure you’re working at the right intensity is to determine your maximum heart rate so you can train efficiently and effectively.
Why You Should Care About Maximum Heart Rate
Your heart rate can only go so high and the highest it can go is your maximum heart rate—a number that varies by individual depending on factors like the size of your heart and evolving level of fitness. This is why it’s so important to know where your heart rate should be rather than apply an arbitrary number from a chart you saw in a book, article or on a piece of fitness equipment.
Here’s why: These numbers represent average rates for varying age groups but may not be right for you. Even though you’re 40, for example, your target heart rate may be that of a 30-year-old. Yeah, that means you have to work harder.
These charts don’t account for you as an individual. They don’t account for what you’ve eaten (what your body is using for fuel*), what your overall health is like, what your genetics are, or if you have any injuries. In other words: Ignore these charts and anything else generically produced for the masses. If you know how to determine and adjust your target heart rate, you’ll avoid plateaus and inefficient workouts.
Before we dive into heart rate training zones, let’s calculate your theoretical max heart rate using multiple formulas. For example, based on our age (45), our theoretical max heart rate ranges from 166 to 187. We’ll set the max heart rate on our monitor to somewhere in this range. Note: Your max could be higher than where you initially set it, but it’s good have a starting point to see how your body responds.
Once you’ve established your maximum heart rate, you can calculate your target heart rate and use the following training zones as a guideline for your workouts.
1: Healthy Heart Zone (maintaining or working on general health)
50 – 60 percent of maximum heart rate
- How it feels: relaxed pace, easy, breathing is rhythmic
- The burn: 85 percent of calories burned are from fat
- Benefits: decreases blood pressure, cholesterol and body fat
2: Fitness Zone (fat burning zone, depending on fuel source*)
60 – 70 percent of maximum heart rate
- How it feels: comfortable pace, slightly deeper breathing, conversation possible
- The burn: 85 percent of calories burned are from fat with more total calories burned
- Benefits: same benefits as the healthy heart zone but more intense
3: Aerobic Zone (improves cardiovascular conditioning)
70 – 80 percent of maximum heart rate
- How it feels: moderate pace, can’t hold a conversation or breathe through your nose
- The burn: more total calories are burned with 50 percent of calories burned from fat
- Benefits: improves your cardiovascular and respiratory system while increasing the size and strength of your heart
4: Anaerobic Zone (improves endurance and cardiovascular conditioning)
80 – 90 percent of maximum heart rate
- How it feels: fast paced, uncomfortable, breathing forceful
- The burn: burns more total calories, 15 percent from fat
- Benefits: improves VO2 maximum and cardiorespiratory system, which means your endurance will improve and you’ll be able to fight fatigue better
5: Maximum Effort
90 – 100 percent of maximum heart rate
- How it feels: very fast paced, sustainable for a short period of time, labored breathing
- The burn: burns the highest number of total calories, 15 percent from fat
- Benefits: anaerobic and muscular endurance; increased power
*Timing Is Everything
Before you zip off to do a little fat-burning cardio, it’s important to note that the benefits of these zones are only possible if your body is using the right fuel for the job. In order to burn fat (the first two zones), you must exhaust your usable blood sugar first. And if you’re interested in the benefits of training zones three through five, you need blood sugar for fuel. Otherwise, your body will cannibalize muscle and lean body mass in order to meet the intense caloric demands of these training zones. So, when you hit these different zones is pivotal to your success!
We recommend hitting the first two zones after weight or high-intensity interval training and hitting zones three through five before fat-burning cardio. Why? Weight and high-intensity interval training (performed in the last few zones) will burn your usable blood sugar first and then your body will be in fat-burning mode—perfect timing for training zone one or two.
This is hard stuff, and that’s exactly why you shouldn’t get down on yourself if you don’t fully understand it or if you’ve failed to lose weight on your own. Your body is a complex, dynamic system and that’s why transforming it is such a battle. If you’re too busy with work, family and life to obtain the knowledge you need to succeed, it’s worth the investment to work with a fitness professional to help you meet your goals in the most efficient way possible.
Have questions or comments? You know what to do.