Aim for maximum heart rate during exercise to reap the benefits

Your heart rate during exercise serves as an unbiased indicator of exercise intensity, whether it’s communicated via the high-tech fitness monitor on your wrist, the handheld sensors on a treadmill, or the omnipresent beating in your chest.

While perception of exercise intensity can vary depending on your level of fitness, age, sex, and personal interpretation, heart rate during exercise tells no lies. Working at a higher percentage of your maximum heart rate will always indicate a greater physical effort and a higher number of calories burned therein.

However, you can often perform high-intensity exercises for only a short period of time.

A sprint, for example, will generate a higher heart rate and calorie expenditure than a jog. But this can only be sustained for a relatively small amount of time.

While jogging may not burn as many calories as a sprint, you can sustain the activity for longer, which can account for burning a higher amount of calories overall.

Interval training challenges your heart rate by incorporating short bursts of high-intensity exercise, followed by a “recovery period”.

You can use interval training to increase your heart rate during exercise and, in turn, cardiovascular fitness, as well as burn a higher number of calories.

As such, your body will adapt to higher intensity exercise. Eventually, you will be able to work for longer periods of high intensity than that which you are currently performing with less perceived effort.

Interval training

To increase your heart rate during exercise and ensure you burn those extra calories, try interval training. You can accomplish periods of high intensity by increasing your speed, incline, or resistance.


Speed-reliant intervals can help you make the transition from walking to running, or increase your current running pace.

For example, if you are a novice exerciser wanting to make the transition from walking to running, try running for one minute followed by two minutes of walking.

As you become more fit, decrease the “rest period” (in this case, the time spent walking) and increase the periods of high intensity (time spent running), until you are able to sustain the higher intensity activity for the duration of your exercise time.


If you incorporate incline on a treadmill you can strengthen the muscles of the posterior chain, specifically the glutes and hamstrings.

Begin on an even surface, and gradually increase the incline throughout the duration of your exercise. You should reach the highest percentage of incline about halfway through your routine. At that point you should gradually decrease the incline throughout the remaining minutes of exercise time.

You can also incorporate incline by walking on an even surface or low incline for 3-5 minutes, followed by 1-2 minutes at a high incline, followed by another 3-5 minutes at a lower incline. Repeat for the duration of your exercise.


Increasing the resistance (levels) on an elliptical or stationary bicycle requires you to work against the force of the machine, meaning you will have a heavier cardiovascular output.

Begin with little to no resistance, incorporating 1-2 minute segments of higher resistance followed by 2-3 minutes at a recovery pace.

Starting out

If the last time you did any running was from the bathroom to the couch (“Is Downton Abbey back on?!”), running a mile won’t only feel mentally difficult (“must…stop…now…”), it will actually be difficult for your body.

Conversely, if you’re averaging 40 miles per week, running a mile would provide little to no challenge, and your body would interpret the exercise intensity as rather low.

The body responds to exercise by increasing heart rate in beats per minute. Blood pumps through the body at a more expedient rate, delivering oxygen to exercising tissues. As exercise intensity increases, so does heart rate.

However, because exercise intensity can vary from person to person, heart rate during exercise can vary as well.

If you’re a beginner, you’ll initially find an activity more challenging and experience a higher heart rate than someone who regularly exercises, even if you’re performing the same exercise.

Although it may seem unfair that you’re sucking air while the fitness maven on the treadmill adjacent to yours is seemingly impervious to the effects of exercise, your body has the ability to adapt to repeated stress, increasing in fitness and cardiovascular capacity so that you too will be adept at performing strenuous activities.

What heart rate is best for me?

The most popular method to calculate your maximum heart rate (MHR) is to subtract your age from 220. This offers a rough baseline for most people.

If you use a heart rate monitor at maximum intensity exercise, you can compare that to your MHR calculation above and get a better idea of your MHR. Even the “talk test” can serve as a reliable indicator of work intensity. During periods of lower intensity exercise you should feel breathless but able to speak in fragments; at higher intensities talking should be difficult, if not impossible.

Beginners should aim to work at 50-65% of their MHR for the lower intensity period of cardiovascular exercise, and at 80-85% of their MHR during periods of high intensity.

If you have any questions or concerns regarding the heart rate most appropriate for your current condition, always consult a physician.


  • ACSM: The heart rate debate. (7 October 2016)


Last reviewed 13/Jul/2017

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