Using a Heart Rate Monitor

Chris Health Guide
  • Basics of using the heart rate monitor.

    Nobody wants a new gadget in his life but using a heart rate monitor is a superb idea to help you get much more out of aerobic exercise. So, WHAT IS IT? It's a simple gadget that tells you how hard your heart is particular, how many times a minute it is beating. Almost all such monitors are two part gizmos... a strap to go around your chest and a unit like a wrist watch that goes on your wrist. The strap picks up the electrical beat from your heart and radios the news to the little computer/wrist watch. The most popular one is made by POLAR and the simple ones (all you need) cost about $50. It is easy to use and it will do more for your aerobic exercise than any thing other than a good pair of sneaks.

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    How do you use a heart rate monitor?

    People are scared of these little suckers because they think they are techy and hard to use. They are not. I can do it, just to give you an idea. Just strap it on and - in a few minutes, after you start to sweat - it will blast out the news about how many times a minute your heart is beating. Easy peasy. So what does it mean? Well, it tells you your resting heart rate (that's whatever the number is when you're, uh, resting). That varies from day to day but - as you become familiar with your normal resting rate, variations tell you if you're coming down with something, if you're overtraining and so on.


    More important, when you are working out, it tells you if you are in the right effort zone. For example, it makes sense to go "long and slow" at least a day and maybe more a week. That means tooling along with your heart rate at 55-65% of your maximum heart rate.


    KEY STEP: You need to know your maximum heart rate. The down and dirty way to do it (and still the best way to start) is to use the ancient formula: 220 minus your age. I am 73. So 220 minus 73 is, I believe, 147. Let's call it 150 to make it easy. So, 60% of 150 is 80 beats per minute. Thus, on a long and slow day, I would want to keep my pulse within, say, five bpm of 80. There, that wasn't bad, was it? Once you have a rough idea of your max, you can figure out what 60% is and you have a goal for your long and slow days. That's the basic pace for aerobic exercise.


    More on the heart rate monitor.

    When you get more experienced, you will probably want to crank up your aerobic workouts and do what we call "endurance predator" workouts. That means cranking your heart rate up to 70-85% of your max. Long and slow does the most to strengthen your aerobic base but the endurance predator stuff does it in a different way. You need the heart rate monitor to tell you if you're in the zone.


    Finally, you may want to really get into it and do some anaerobic exercise. That's 85-95% of your max. You can only do that for short bursts and you are burning fat without oxygen...quite a trick. Again, you won't really know you're in that zone without the monitor.


  • Finding Your True Maximum Heart Rate

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    The easy way to find your maximum heart rate - the figure that all aerobic training is based on - is just to subtract your age from the number, 220. Sadly, it is only an approximation. In my case, for example, that formula gives me a max of 147 but I know, just from looking down at my heart rate monitor when I'm going nuts, I know that my real max is 170 bpm (Actually I confirmed that number at a recent Cooper Institute stress of the rare stress tests that takes you to your max). What to do? Well, the number you get off your monitor when you're going flat out is the Real One...the one you should use. Indeed, once you get into great shape, you should push the envelope and get your heart rate up as high as you can, just to see what the real max is.


    The best way to do it? Intervals. You slowly get your heart rate up to say 80% and then really hit it for, say, 60 seconds...go as hard as you can go. Then sink back to 80 or 85% for a bit, followed by another short sprint. If you do three or four of those in a row, you'll get your heart rate way up there. The tippety top number you see on the monitor, just for a second, is your real max. Congratulations. But keep goes down a little bit every year. It's one of those aging things that IS on the biological time of the things that keeps you from being a serious ball player at 50. Sorry.


    By the way, there is another formula that is said to be better for people in good shape: 205 minus half your age. That's still too low for me and the Cooper Institute, which used to use it, no longer recommends that approach. Best advice: find your real max by going for it (assuming you're in great sense killing yourself just to find out your max).

Published On: May 19, 2008