People say that exercise gets your blood pumping — but what exactly does that mean? Certain vital signs, like your pulse and blood pressure, indicate how your heart is functioning and offer clues for exercising safely and effectively. But, they're two very distinct measurements.
Using Your Heart to Evaluate Exercise
For adults, the latest physical activity guidelines, issued by the Department of Health and Human Services, recommend at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity a week. Aerobic activity includes cardiovascular conditioning (sometimes called, simply, cardio) — exercise that uses large muscle groups to increase circulation and breathing rates.
It's usually obvious when breathing increases — exercise leaves you huffing and puffing — but monitoring your pulse may be a more accurate check of intensity. That's because your pulse reflects the number of heart beats per minute, which increases with activity.
For most people, the American Heart Association (AHA) recommends a resting heart rate of 60 to 100 beats per minute. Active individuals may have rates as low as 40 beats per minute because their hearts work more efficiently. The key to appropriate aerobic activity is reaching 64 to 93 percent of the maximum beats per minute your body can safely manage. After exercise, your pulse will return to normal, according to the AHA, but don't expect it to happen immediately. It will go down gradually.
Your Heart Rate Calculator
To calculate your exercise heart rates, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends these steps:
- First, calculate your approximate maximum beats per minute by subtracting your age (in years) from 220.
- Then, determine optimal ranges for moderate and vigorous exercise. For moderate activity, you want your exercising heart rate to fall between your maximum beats per minute multiplied by (x) 0.64 and your maximum beats per minute x 0.76. For vigorous activity, you want your exercising heart rate to fall between your maximum beats per minute x 0.77 and your maximum beats per minute x 0.93.
Remember that cardio can be scaled to your needs. People with joint or muscle pain may replace a high-impact exercise like running with low-impact exercise, including activities like swimming or exercise that always calls for at least one foot on the ground, like brisk walking, according to the AHA. Though they aren't likely to cause big jumps in heart rate, other muscle-building activities like weight training can condition your body to sustain more cardio.
Monitoring Blood Pressure
Your blood pressure is another important measure, but it functions less as a quick indicator and more as a long-term marker. According to the AHA, it won't rise with exercise to the extent your heart rate does. In fact, it might barely go up.
"One way to think of it is that consistently raising your pulse helps to bring your resting blood pressure down over time as your heart and blood vessels become more efficient," explains Thomas W. Buford, PhD, associate director of the Center for Exercise Medicine at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
Exercise tends to lower blood pressure over time, but because your heart pumps faster with activity, you may notice an increase in systolic blood pressure during or shortly after a workout. You should stop exercising and consult your doctor if you notice a pattern where the systolic reading exceeds 140 millimeters of mercury or your diastolic readings rise above 90.
Exercise on its own isn't likely to cause low blood pressure, considered to be readings well below 120/80 millimeters of mercury, though related problems like dehydration, vitamin deficiencies or heart issues can. Symptoms of low blood pressure sometimes mimic those for high blood pressure, including dizziness, blurred vision, shortness of breath and confusion, according to the AHA. Stop working out and consult a health professional if you experience such signs.
How to Take Measurements
Tools for measuring pulse and blood pressure are available with many smart devices or from pharmacies and online retailers. You can even measure pulse independently: Press the index and middle fingers of one hand on your other wrist (below the base of the thumb), according to the CDC. Adjust fingers and pressure until you feel your heartbeat, then count the beats in 15 seconds and multiply by four for BPMs.
Read more: What is Normal Blood Pressure?
Is This an Emergency?
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: “Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans”
- American Heart Association: “All About Heart Rate (Pulse)”
- American Heart Association: "Blood Pressure vs. Heart Rate (Pulse)"
- American Heart Association: "Low Blood Pressure"
- American Heart Association: "Guidelines for Physical Activity"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “Target Heart Rate and Estimated Maximum Heart Rate”
- Thomas W. Buford, PhD, associate director, Center for Exercise Medicine, University of Alabama at Birmingham