When you exercise, your pulse rate accelerates to help move blood and oxygen through your cells and tissues. Knowing your pulse rate can help you evaluate your exercise routine and maximize the benefits of your workout. The best results occur when your pulse rate stays within your target zone during exercise; a pulse rate that's too high or too low could signal potential problems.
Pulse Rate Basics
Your pulse, or heart rate, is a way to tell how hard and effectively your heart is pumping. Each time your heart expands and contracts, it forces blood through your circulatory system, and you can feel these pulses at points on your body such as your neck and wrist. A normal pulse rate varies from 60 to 90 while at rest, and up to 200 during vigorous exercise, depending upon your age and fitness level. If your pulse rate drops too low, an event called brachycardia, it could cause dizziness or fainting. If it's too high, the result is tachycardia, which can be a sign of an underlying medical problem.
Target Heart Rate
Determine your estimated maximum heart rate for exercise by subtracting your age from 220. During exercise, aim for between 60 to 80 percent of your maximum heart rate number; any pulse rate within this range is normal. Avoid exercise that pushes your pulse above 85 percent, as this can lead to cardiovascular and orthopedic problems without any added health benefits. If you have a preexisting health concern, your doctor may decrease your target heart rate zone to around 50 percent.
Taking Your Pulse
To see if you're exercising in your target heart-rate zone, stop exercising and take your pulse for ten seconds. Place the tips of your index, second and third fingers on the palm side of your opposite wrist or on your neck near your windpipe. Press lightly until you feel the pulse, then count the beats for 10 seconds while looking at a watch or clock, and multiply that number by six. If you are unable to take your pulse or stop exercising to do so, you can use the maximum perceived exertion method: if you can talk and exercise at the same time, you aren't working too hard, but if you can sing and still exercise, you're not working hard enough. You can also use a strap-on heart-rate monitor or a medically supervised graded exercise test to determine your heart rate.
Several factors can affect your target pulse rate, including increases in air temperature and dehydration, which can cause your heart rate to increase, as can exercising at higher altitudes. Medications for heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes can also affect your pulse rate; your doctor may need to adjust your target heart rate zone if you have any of these conditions. If your pulse is consistently too low or too high during exercise, consult your doctor, especially if you also experience shortness of breath, pain, dizziness or fainting.