Monitoring Your Heart Rate

Exercising without knowing your heart rate is the equivalent of driving without a speedometer. If you know your heart rate, you know how hard you are working. Knowing your heart rate makes you more productive and efficient during your exercise time if you also know how much your heart rate should be for you to be burning the right amount of calories.

The most exact way to gauge exercise intensity is to use a heart-rate monitor, but you can also take your pulse to determine how hard your heart is working.

Measure Your Pulse

You can measure your pulse by using your fingers at your carotid (neck) artery or the radial (wrist) artery. The carotid pulse is located just below the top of the jaw, high up on either side of the neck. To feel it, put your first two fingers (not your thumb) lightly on this area. Exerting too much pressure can slow the heart rate, so touch this area gently. You should feel your pulse against your fingers.

The radial pulse can be found on the thumb side of the forearm just slightly above where the wrist naturally flexes and bends. As with the carotid pulse, use your first two fingers, not your thumb, to feel your pulse.

Count the beats for 15 seconds and multiply by four to estimate the number of beats per minute. Or count the beats for 10 seconds and multiply by six to estimate the number of beats per minute. Then compare this number in beats per minute (bpm) to your desired training zone.

While you're estimating your pulse per minute here, this method is usually good enough to determine how hard you're working during exercise. You will learn below what your target heart rate should be during exercise.

Using a Heart-Rate Monitor

Heart-rate monitors have revolutionized aerobic fitness because they quickly and easily give you reliable information on how hard you are working. Typically, the monitor has two parts: a strap that goes around your chest (near your bra strap), and a device that you wear around your wrist, like a watch. The strap electronically monitors how fast your heart is beating and transmits the signal to the watch. Then you read the watch to find out how hard you're working. Heart-rate monitors cost about $100 and are well worth the price.

Before you use a heart-rate monitor, moisten the underside of the battery/sensor strap with water or saliva. The moisture helps conduct the electrical activity to the monitor. Then hold the strap against the front of your torso just below the breast area. Adjust the circumference of the elastic strap so that it is snug but not uncomfortable. Hold up the wrist monitor approximately 6 to 10 inches directly in front of the position of one of the sensors on the battery/sensor strap. This engages the communication between the sensors and the wrist monitor, and in a few moments your heart rate in beats per minute should be visible.

The monitor will read and display your heart rate in beats per minute as long as it stays within 1 to 3 feet of the sensors. Should you lose the signal in the middle of an exercise session, simply bring the wrist monitor up in front of the sensors again, and the monitor will re-engage. Bicyclists (stationary or regular) can mount the wrist monitor on their handlebars by using a bike-mount apparatus or by tightening the wrist strap around the bars.

Heart-Rate Zone

To figure out what your heart rate or pulse should be when you exercise, use this (very rough) formula:

  • Subtract your age from 220. For example: If you are 40 years old, then the answer is 180. This number is your estimated maximum heart rate in beats per minute.

  • Now, multiply that number (e.g., 180) by .65 and .85. The two numbers (117 and 153) tell you the range your heart rate should be during exercise.

You will spend the majority of your exercise time with your heart rate in the lower part of the range, and will reach the higher part of the range only during brief interval sessions. If you're very fit, you can use a slightly different formula to determine the range of your heart rate during exercise. As a first step, subtract your age from 205, and then do the rest of the calculations as they have been described previously.

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