With Apple Watches and Fitbits the rage around Charleston and Mount Pleasant, many of you may have noticed the ubiquitous heart rate monitor pulsing it’s little red heart every time you workout at the gym.  And while most of us exercise enthusiasts know that having a good heart rate is AWESOME, do we really know that having a good heart rate MEANS?

This week, we are going to focus on exactly what a GOOD HEART RATE is for each age group and WHY keeping your heart in the “happy zone” matters!


While this may seem like a silly question, the implications of ignoring your HR are NOT so funny.  We’ve all felt our pulses after exercising in elementary school gym class.  But what’s so important about how fast your heart is going? 

According to The American Heart Association, “Your heart rate, or pulse, is the number of times your heart beats per minute. Normal heart rate varies from person to person. Knowing yours can be an important heart-health gauge.  As you age, changes in the rate and regularity of your pulse can change and may signify a heart condition or other condition that needs to be addressed.”  So basically, getting familiar with the way your ticker beats will help you gauge your fitness levels while you exercise.


According to Harvard Medical School (and who can argue with them?), “Heart rate is important because the heart’s function is so important. The heart circulates oxygen and nutrient-rich blood throughout the body. When it’s not working properly, just about everything is affected. Heart rate is central to this process because the function of the heart (called “cardiac output”) is directly related to heart rate and stroke volume (the amount of blood pumped out with each beat).”

To buy this chart: https://www.amazon.com/Fitness-Heart-Rate-Chart-Poster/dp/1926534018

To buy this chart: https://www.amazon.com/Fitness-Heart-Rate-Chart-Poster/dp/1926534018


You have probably seen the different “Heart Zones” on treadmills and ellipticals around the gym (or see image above).  They usually range from “inactive” to “maximum” with elusive categories like “Weight Loss Training Range” and “Aerobic Training Range” sandwiched between.  And different age categories have different ranges.  We’ve not had to do so much graph-calculating since grade school!

And unfortunately, these charts are of course, based on AVERAGES.  This means that they might be off for your specific fitness level.  In fact, according to Mike Siemens, M.S. Director of Exercise Physiology at Canyon Ranch Spa, as quoted on active.com these HR levels could be as high as 30 points off of any given individuals fitness level: 

“The reason for this huge potential error is that they all use the generic formula of 220 — AGE = maximum heart rate. This can be off by as much as +/- 30 beats per minute! In real life this means if you are 50 years old — the charts will predict a maximum heart rate for you of 170 beats per minute. Meanwhile, your true maximum heart rate could be as low as 140 or as high as 200 beats per minute. That is the normal range of human maximum heart rates. From the charts you have no way of knowing if your maximum heart rate is lower or higher than 220 — AGE.”


While, (as long as you are having regular visits with your doctor and are in generally good heath) Heart Zone charts work as a good guideline to begin with while planning your workouts, in order to get the most accurate “Zone” reading, Shape Magazine recommends getting a VO2 Test, also known as a Metabolic Test.  This involves making an appointment with a specialist (like, for example at the MUSC Wellness Center) and have an expert help set your heart rate training zones.

Check out the process with this video: 


So once you have your proper HR levels, what do they all mean anyway? VeryWellFit has an amazing article that spells it all out, explaining that there are benefits to working out at every heart rate level. 

In a nutshell (all descriptions taken from VeryWellFit.  To access this article in full, click HERE):

Healthy Heart Zone:

“Your workout in this zone is less intense and won’t give the most cardiorespiratory training benefits. But studies have shown that it works to help decrease body fat, blood pressure, and cholesterol.  In this zone, the body derives its energy by burning 10 percent carbohydrates, 5 percent protein, and 85 percent fat.”

Fitness Heart Rate Zone

“You burn more calories per minute than in the healthy heart zone because the exercise is a little more intense. You are going faster and therefore covering more distance. The calories burned depend on the distance you cover and your weight more than any other factors.  In this zone, your body fuels itself with 85 percent fat, 5 percent protein, and 10 percent carbohydrate.”

Aerobic Heart Rate Zone

This is the zone to aim for when training for endurance. It spurs your body to improve your circulatory system by building new blood vessels and increases your heart and lung capacity.  Aiming for 20 to 60 minutes in this zone is believed to give the best fitness training benefits.  You burn 50 percent of your calories from fat, 50 percent from carbohydrate, and less than 1 percent from protein when you are in this zone

Anaerobic Zone – Threshold Zone

“This exertion level takes you to the limit where your body begins to produce lactic acid. Racewalkers use this zone to build their ability to go even faster.

Workouts in this heart rate zone should be in the 10-20 minute range or part of an interval training workout.  You burn more calories per minute than with the lower heart rate workouts, as you are covering more distance per minute.  The body burns 85 percent carbohydrates, 15 percent fat and less than 1 percent protein in this zone.”

Red-Line Zone

“This zone should only be used for short bursts during interval training, where you work intensely for a minute and then drop back down to a lower intensity for several minutes, and repeat. You should consult with your doctor to ensure you can work out at such a high heart rate safely. While you burn lots of calories per minute in this zone, 90 percent of them are carbohydrates, 10 percent fats, and less than 1 percent protein.“