Your cardio exercise heart rate has a big impact on the outcome of your workout. Keep it too low and you won't induce the stress that helps your cardiovascular and respiratory system improve; let it run too high and you'll burn out before your workout is through.
The factors that determine your heart rate during cardiovascular exercise include age, sex, fitness level and exercise goals. It's possible to increase your cardiovascular fitness by exercising at 50 to 70 percent of your maximum heart rate; but a rate of 70 to 90 percent is considered ideal. Your maximum heart rate is influenced by your age, gender and genetics.
Maximum Heart Rate
Your maximum heart rate is largely determined by genetics and is best determined in a lab or during a stress test performed by a physician. Absent those resources, use simple equations to estimate yours.
Several formulas to determine maximum heart rate exist, but one of the most simple -- for a man -- is 220 minus your age. For example, the maximum heart rate of a 30-year-old man would be 190 beats per minute.
For many years the same formula was used to estimate maximum heart rates for women. Research published in 2010 in the American Heart Association's journal Circulation provides a more accurate way to estimate maximum heart rates in women. The suggested formula is 206 minus 88 percent of a woman's age. For example, a 30-year-old woman's maximum heart rate would be approximately 180 beats per minute.
Recommended Target Heart Rates
Once you know your maximum heart rate, aim to work at a percentage of it during a cardio session. The American Heart Association suggests that maintaining your heart rate between 50 percent and 80 percent of its maximum is enough to provide cardiovascular benefits. For maximum results, however, keep your heart rate in a zone of between 70 percent and 90 percent of its maximum when you're already relatively fit and are intent on improving and maintaining cardiovascular fitness.
Athletes may have slightly different approaches to heart rate goals during training. Triathletes, runners and cyclists, for example, have workouts in which they work in a lower zone of 50 to 60 percent of maximum to build a cardiovascular base. They save higher cardio heart rates for specific, targeted workouts to strategically develop their body's engine.
Examples of Target Heart Rates
The American Heart Association provides examples of target heart rate zones based on age and the maximum average heart rate for that age. For a man:
- Age 20 with a max of 200 beats per minute should aim for 100 to 170 bpm
- Age 30 with a max of 190 bpm should aim for 95 to 162 bpm
- Age 40 with a max of 180 bpm per minute should aim for 90 to 153
- Age 50 with a max of 170 bpm should aim for 85 to 145 bpm
Using the formula for estimating the maximum heart rate in women described by researchers in Circulation, provides the following guidelines:
- Age 20 with a max of 188 beats per minute should aim for 94 to 160 bpm
- Age 30 with a max of 180 bpm should aim for 90 to 153 bpm
- Age 45 with a max of 166 bpm per minute should aim for 83 to 141
- Age 50 with a max of 162 bpm should aim for 81 to 138 bpm
- American Heart Association: Target Heart Rates
- Circulation: Heart Rate Response to Exercise Stress Testing in Asymptomatic Women. The St. James Women Take Heart Project
- The Sport Digest: Exercise Intensity, Heart Rate, and Perceived Exertion
- American Council on Exercise: Monitoring Exercise Intensity Using Heart Rate