Your Pulse, Decoded

Knowing your heart rate can improve your fitness.

Minute after minute, day in and day out, year after year, your heart is busy keeping you alive by pumping blood to your body. The number of times your heart beats per minute is known as your heart rate or pulse. When you’re at rest, this number is smaller and when you’re active it’s greater. At rest, your pulse is called your resting heart rate. At the other end of the spectrum is your maximum heart rate.

Knowing these two numbers—your resting and maximum heart rates—can be helpful in gaging your fitness level, improving your fitness, and reaching your goals.

How Fit Are You?

A normal resting heart rate varies from person to person, but usually falls between 60 and 100 beats per minute (BPM). The more athletic you are, the lower your heart rate is likely to be. When your heart is in good shape, it doesn’t have to work as hard to pump blood. It’s not uncommon for a super fit person to have a resting heart rate of 40 BPM. On the flip side, unhealthy adults with cardiovascular problems often have a faster heart rate.

This information makes it easy to see how your resting heart rate is a helpful way to measure your fitness level as well as track your fitness progress. Before beginning an exercise program, measure your resting heart rate. And no, you don’t have to visit a doctor to determine your resting heart rate. You can wear a heart rate tracker, smart watch, or fitness tracker to find your pulse or you can take it yourself. Before getting out of bed in the morning, gently hold two fingers (not your thumb) on the inside of your wrist or against the side of your neck and count the number of beats for 30 seconds. Double this number to figure your beats per minute.

Use this number as your baseline starting point. A month into your workout routine, take your heart rate again at the same time of day. If you’ve been working hard to get into shape, your heart rate will show it. But if the number of beats per minute hasn’t decreased, it could mean your workouts aren’t challenging enough. After starting a workout routine, allow four to six weeks to see a noticeable difference in your resting heart rate.

How Effective Is Your Workout?

Exercise that causes you to barely break a sweat may not be doing you much good, while intense exercise that pushes your heart to its limits may increase your risk for injury. One way to determine whether you’re exercising at the right intensity is to know your maximum heart rate and your target heart rate.

The best way to find your maximum heart rate is at an exercise lab where multiple factors (age, oxygen consumption, and heart rate) are taken into account. If a visit to the exercise lab isn’t an option, you can get a general idea of your maximum heart rate either by subtracting your age from 220 or by exercising vigorously and taking your heart rate at the peak of your workout.

When you know your maximum heart rate, you can alter your workout to get the greatest outcome by exercising within your target heart rate range. Periodically during your workout, take your pulse. If your goal is to burn fat, you should exercise at the target heart rate of 50–70 percent of your maximum heart rate. To improve the health of your heart, aim to exercise at the target heart rate of 75–85 percent of your maximum rate. Want to gain endurance? Train at 50–65 percent.

Regardless of your health goals, take your heart to heart and get in the gym!