Maximum vs. Target Heart Rate: Getting the Most Out of Exercise

It's important to avoid exceeding your maximum heart rate.
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Have you ever worked out so intensely that you thought your heart might grow wings and fly right out of your chest? You may have hit what's called your maximum heart rate. To reap the most benefit from exercise, experts say it's important to steer clear of exceeding your maximum heart rate.

Read more:What Is Your MHR — and How Do You Calculate It?

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Heart Rate: Finding the Sweet Spot

Your maximum heart rate is the highest limit of what your heart can handle during exercise, notes the Mayo Clinic, and often serves as a gauge for how intense your workout is. A person's maximum heart rate is based on age, with the rate decreasing as you get older, explains the American Heart Association (AHA). To calculate the average rate for someone your age, subtract your age from 220.

You should generally stay within 50 to 70 percent of your maximum heart rate during moderate intensity exercise, or 70 to 85 percent during vigorous exercise, says the AHA. This range is known as your target heart rate — or the level of physical activity that conditions your heart without overworking it, according to Mayo.

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Although exceeding maximum heart rate is possible, it's not advisable, says Kelly Stamp, PhD, ANP-C, a nurse-practitioner and professor at the University of North Carolina Greensboro School of Nursing. Exceeding maximum heart rate can lead to fatigue or more severe symptoms, depending on your age, your physical fitness level and any underlying health conditions, Stamp adds.

"Know what your limitations are," she says. "If someone is not very conditioned and they don't exercise often, it wouldn't be recommended that they go out and start vigorous activity. If they have some underlying health conditions, that could certainly exacerbate those underlying health conditions."

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Another important type of heart rate is your resting heart rate, which reflects the number of times your heart beats each minute while you're at rest, notes the AHA. Resting heart rate usually falls between 60 and 100 beats a minute — and the lower, the better, the AHA explains, because a higher resting heart rate is tied to lower physical fitness.

Heart-Healthy Exercise: Beginners and Beyond

Regular exercise can not only whip you into shape, but it can also benefit your heart rate and overall heart health, says Stamp.

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So, where should you start with exercise if you don't identify as a gym rat or fitness enthusiast? According to Stamp, walking every day is a great way to start. She recommends starting in small increments of three times a day for 10 minutes each to get your heart going, and gradually working up to longer stints of 30 minutes once per day to begin to boost your endurance.

If you're not sure what intensity of walking is right for you, Stamp gives a helpful hint: "A key thing people should pay attention to when they're walking is, they should be able to walk briskly and talk to somebody at the same time. If you're walking briskly and trying to talk to someone but you're completely out of breath, then maybe you want to slow your stride a bit until you can build up the tolerance to do that."

Looking to turn up the intensity and reach your target heart rate? There are lots exercises you can try, depending on your health and level of physical conditioning, says Stamp. The AHA names jogging, dancing, biking, stair-climbing and jumping rope as solid examples of aerobic exercise — the kind that gets your heart rate up. However, before starting any exercise routine, be sure to clear it with your doctor.

Read more:Cardio Exercise Heart Rate

Could Heart Rate Signal Problems?

In some cases, a spiking heart rate may be a cause for concern, Stamp cautions. According to the Mayo Clinic, exercise could trigger heart palpitations (feeling like your heart is fluttering or pounding) in some people, which may signal an underlying heart condition.

"You should see a provider if you are feeling any kind of palpitations and if that's connected with fatigue or feeling like you're going to pass out — when you just don't feel normal," Stamp says. "If you notice that's correlated with your heart rate, you should check in with your provider."

Also, seek medical attention right away if you have chest pain, fainting spells, severe shortness of breath or dizziness, Mayo advises.

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