How Much is Too Much?...or Too Little?

Jeffrey Heit Health Guide
  • When first discussing becoming more physically active with people, I sometimes incorrectly assume that he or she will know how much to exercise- especially when it comes to cardiovascular fitness.  Clearly, if one has never really participated in sports or an exercise fitness program, the first piece of advice is - see your primary care provider and get a complete physical exam!!


    Once the go ahead has been given, start slowly. No one is keeping track of your progress but you. So how hard should you start? And, once you've started, how do you know when to take it up a notch or two?


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    Any discussion of exercise for cardiovascular fitness requires a quick primer on maximal heart rate and heart rate goals. Interestingly, some of the formula is dependent upon your age. The older you are, the lower your maximal heart rate is.  220 per minute is the gold standard number from which you subtract your age to determine your maximal heart rate. If you're 40 years old, your maximal heart rate is roughly 180 beats per minute.


    If you're 20, you're maximal heart rate is roughly 200 per minute. A good workout is one which will get your heart rate up to between 60%-90% of its maximal value. So, for instance, if you are 30 years old, a good approximation of goal exercise heart rate would be (220 - 30) x .6 = 114 on the low end and (220 - 30) x 0.9 = 171 on the high end of the range. If you are a true beginner, you may want to start even lower at 50% your maximal heart rate. Once you get used to getting your heart pumping and breaking a little sweat, crank it up to 70%-80% maximal heart rate.


    Now for the million dollar question- how do you know what your heart rate is? The answer is, it depends. If you are using a higher tech treadmill, stationary bike, elliptical or step machine at a gym or home machine, many are equipped with sensors that will monitor your heart rate when you place your hands on the sensor material. If you're a runner, there are many companies today that sell monitoring equipment that will fit on your wrist and give you a digital read out of your heart rate. Some are even GPS equipped and will let you know your distance traveled as well as a host of other information.


    Of course, nothing is wrong with a good old fashion pulse monitoring- your hands, and a clock or watch with a second timer. To check your pulse, place your index and middle finger over your wrist pulse (aka radial pulse), or your carotid pulse in your neck (just to either side of your Adam's apple), count how many pulsations you feel in 15 seconds, then multiply by 4 to get your pulse rate per minute.


    For beginners, I would suggest shooting for 10-20 minutes of exercise 5 times per week. Once you're feeling more comfortable, 30 minutes 5-6 times a week should have you on your way to better cardiovascular fitness. Indeed, those of you who are "seasoned gym rats" may go for 45-60 minutes 4 or more times per week. 


    Which exercise is right for you? That's the great part- it's entirely up to you. Worried about arthritis in your knees? Try the elliptical machine; it minimizes impact on your knees and feet. Looking to build leg strength? Try the step machine. Want to get a group of people together for a more leisurely activity? Try brisk walking or jogging.


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    Of course, cardiovascular fitness is only one part of staying healthy. A balanced diet rich in fruits and vegetables, avoidance of tobacco products and enough restorative sleep are all key ingredients in staying fit and healthy. Good Luck!

Published On: April 23, 2008