Are You Working Out Hard Enough?

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It’s not exactly news that working out is beneficial for your overall health – especially your heart. Exercising lowers your risk of suffering a heart attack, increases your chances of survival if you do have one, and prevents a host of other issues, such as obesity and diabetes, that can lead to heart disease.

But how do you know if you’re working out hard enough?

One way to determine this is by measuring your target heart rate – or the heart rate you want to achieve while partaking in physical activity.

You may be familiar with the term target heart rate – thanks to an increase in exercise technology, measuring heart rate is easier than ever before (although the jury is still out on how accurate some of this technology is). Fitness programs focused on high intensity, interval training (HIIT or CrossFit, anyone?) and increasing your heart rate are also on the rise.

According to Dennis Kerrigan, Ph.D., a clinical exercise physiologist at Henry Ford Health System, target heart rate has traditionally been used for endurance athletes for training purposes to ensure they were working out at the correct intensity to improve performance.

It has since spread to a larger market, but its use is still beneficial.

“We know there’s a direct relationship between heart rate response and the amount of oxygen the muscles are able to consume on a cellular level,” Kerrigan says. “Target heart rate provides a training guide by utilizing this relationship.

An important variable when determining your target heart rate is baseline fitness. Sedentary individuals can see improvements at relatively lower heart rates, whereas more fit individuals do need to work at a higher relative intensity.

How can I measure my target heart rate?
“The best way to get an accurate measure of your target heart rate is to have an actual exercise stress test done,” Kerrigan says. “Other methods run the risk of being less accurate.”

One common method used to determine your target heart rate is demonstrated below. By finding your estimated peak and resting heart rates, you can calculate your heart rate reserve. For more sedentary individuals or those who are just getting into an exercise routine, calculate 50 percent of your heart rate reserve. For those already exercising, calculate 80 percent of your heart rate reserve.

118628 Smallish Heart Rate Horiz 2

However, this method should not be used for individuals with a history of heart disease or in individuals who take the common blood pressure drugs known as beta-blockers.

Another, less math-strenuous way to determine if you’re working out as hard as you should is through the “talk test.”

“During aerobic exercise, you should not be at an intensity where you are unable to have a conversation with the person next you,” Kerrigan says. “The catch to this is that as you’re having that conversation you also feel you have to catch your breath because your breathing level is elevated.”

Heart benefits of exercise
“Exercise has pleiotropic benefits,” Kerrigan says. “On a cellular level, in how your body utilizes glucose, how your body activates different hormones and enzymes, improved blood flow, decreased risk of heart disease and cancer – the list goes on and on.”

The American College of Sports Medicine recommends people partake in cardiovascular exercise for at least 150 minutes per week.


How healthy is your heart? Take the quiz and find out. Then, schedule an appointment with your primary care provider or find a heart expert at henryford.com or by calling 1-800-HENRYFORD (436-7936).

For more fitness tips and ideas, visit our MoveWell section and subscribe to receive our latest articles in your inbox every week.

Dr. Dennis Kerrigan is a clinical exercise physiologist with the Henry Ford Heart & Vascular Institute. He sees patients and conducts exercise research at Henry Ford Hospital.

Categories: MoveWell