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Senior Fitness Tuesday: Using your Heart Rate as a Fitness Guide

By Fred Dyck, YWCA Fitness on 25th Manager

The idea of using your heart rate as a method to measure how hard you are working out has been around for a long time. For example, most cardio equipment you see in our or any other gym has heart rate hand holds. This option is there for that purpose. And, we now can measure our heart rate using wearable technology in the form of a device such as a Fitbit on our wrist (or a watch and chest strap system). But what does the data mean? How intense should you exercise?

Since sometime around 1970, many in the health and wellness field began using a simple benchmark measurement to determine a person’s maximal heart rate. This simple mathematical formula was to subtract your age from the number 220. For example, if you are 60, your maximal heart rate was said to be around 160 (220-60). And, from this number, optimal training “zones” were created. The American Heart Association still promotes this method as a general indicator for training zones for seniors suggesting seniors can train somewhere between 50% to 85% of a person’s maximal heart rate. Using this formula, target training zones for cardiovascular exercises for seniors would be:

  • 55 years of age 83-140 beats per minute
  • 60 years of age 80-136 beats per minute
  • 65 years of age 78-132 beats per minute
  • 70 years of age 75-128 beats per minute

And, from this guide, a person easily understands exercise which reports your heart rate on the the lower side of the scale means you are working at a moderate level and that a higher heart rate level means you are working at a higher level.

A few points to consider if you are going to monitor your heart rate during your workouts:

  • The 220 minus your age is a general mathematical principle; with stress placed on the word general. In fact, there are many individuals and agencies in the health and wellness field that discredit this as a starting point measurement. There are other formulas out there you can consider. But, it’s an accepted benchmark (American Heart Association still endorses it for example) and certainly provides an initial starting point.
  • Certain medications can affect a person’s heart rate. For example, some high blood pressure medications have been found to lower a person’s maximal heart rate (and therefore your target heart rate).
  • Consider the way you are measuring your heart rate: Wearables (like the Fitbit) have been known to not be completely accurate. In fact, wearables which only use a wrist measurement to determine your heart rate have proven to be less accurate than other wearable methods such as a chest strap system. The old system of fingers on your pulse is still an accurate method. Does that mean you should not use your wearable as a monitor? No, go ahead and use it; even if it’s just using a wrist method (no chest strap). While its reported number may not be the same as your actual heart rate, it should still give you a reasonable general idea. And, if you occasionally measure what the wearable reports versus an actual pulse measurement, you should be able to determine if it’s always low or always high and by how much. And, there are wearables which work in the water…a great benefit to our members who participate in the Aqua Fitness classes we host.
  • Cardio machine hand holds: Most of the cardio equipment in our weight room has hand sensors for measuring heart rate. In a very unscientific analysis, I compared a few of the hand sensors versus my chest strap monitor and found most were reasonably close (at least for my liking). The machines I measured were:
    • C3 – Accurate. Over five separate comparisons: measurements were within 1 to 3 beats versus the chest strap wearable. Four were 1 to 3 beats low and one was 1 beat high.
    • T3 – Accurate. Similar results to C3. All measurements within zero to 3 beats.
    • T5 – Accurate. Similar to C3 and T3.
    • C6 – Accurate. Similar to the above machines.
    • T6 – Actually quite inaccurate. This treadmill consistently reported a heart rate significantly higher than my chest strap system. The machine sensors were reporting my heart rate around 140 beats when my chest strap was reporting around 120.
    • Note: I used a Garmin 310XT Sport Watch in this unscientific analysis…I am not even sure the Garmin is accurate but will reserve that topic for a later blog.

In summary:

Regardless of whether you use a measurement such as heart rate to help guide your workouts, start slow when you first begin a new program. In terms of your heart rate targets, working in the 50% of maximal range is a good place to start. As your body adapts to the program over the first few weeks, increase your intensity.

In the end, using some form of heart rate measurement, even a simple self-administered pulse reading, can prove to be beneficial and give you feedback on how hard you are working. This data helps ensure you are working in the “target zone”. But, remember, how you feel, is always a good guide. A simple rule of thumb is to ask yourself is can you can carry on a conversation while you are working out? If not, you may be working too hard. And, it’s always good advice to consider consulting the health care professionals in your life if you are embarking on a new workout program.

Want more information about target hear rate zones? Talk to one of our Personal Trainers and we will help you get the most out of your workout experience.