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.
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According to the Cleveland Clinic, a normal pulse rate for an adult older than 18 years varies from 60 to 100 beats per minute (bpm) while at rest and up a maximum of 200 bpm during vigorous exercise, depending on age and fitness level. AMS Cardiology notes that if the pulse rate drops too low, an event called bradycardia, it can cause dizziness or fainting, and if too high, the result is tachycardia, either of which can be a sign of an underlying medical problem.
Target Heart Rate
The American Heart Association (AHA), explains that your maximum heart rate (MHR) for exercise is roughly your age subtracted from 220. During exercise, aim for between 50 to 70 percent of your MHR number for moderate-intensity exercise, says the AHA; any pulse rate within this range is normal.
The University of Iowa Hospitals & Clinics advises exercising within your target zone to boost your cardiovascular endurance and ensure your exercise intensity can help you achieve your health and fitness objectives. If you have a preexisting health concern, talk to your doctor about determining a suitable target heart rate for you.
Taking Your Pulse
To see if you're exercising at your target heart rate, the Mayo Clinic suggests that you stop and take your pulse for 15 seconds: Place the tips of your index and third fingers on the thumb side of your opposite wrist or on your neck near your windpipe. Press lightly until you feel the pulse; then count the beats for 15 seconds according to a watch or clock and multiply that number by 4.
If you're unable to take your pulse or stop exercising to do so, you can estimate your intensity level, explains the Mayo Clinic: 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 to determine your heart rate.
Factors Affecting Pulse Rate
According to the Heart Foundation, several factors can affect your pulse rate, including air temperature, dehydration, nutritional supplements, certain over-the-counter and prescription medications, and caffeine. Conditions such as heart disease, diabetes and high cholesterol 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.
- Cleveland Clinic: “Pulse & Heart Rate”
- American Heart Association: “Target Heart Rates Chart”
- AMS Cardiology: “Bradycardia and Tachycardia”
- University of Iowa Hospitals & Clinics: “Target Heart Rate for Exercise”
- Mayo Clinic: Exercise Intensity: “How To Measure It”
- The Heart Foundation: “Your Heart Rate”
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.