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Expert advice on heart rate training

Chris Freytag

Fitness expert Chris Freytag

Heart rate training can make any workout more effective. Whether you are training to run a Get Your Rear in Gear 5K, preparing for a marathon to raise funds for the cause, or simply trying to lose weight for improved health, maintaining the proper heart rate is a great workout technique to reach those goals most effectively. This Ask the Trainer question comes from a reader who has a low heart rate and wonders if it could affect her efforts at weight loss.

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Get Your Rear in Gear reader: I have a pretty low resting heart rate, in the 40s.  Although I make an effort to be active almost everyday,  I’ve had problems dropping ten pounds.  Could it be related to my heart rate?  If so, is there something I can do about it?

Chris Freytag: Well, actually, the more fit you are, the lower your resting heart rate will be. A normal rate is about 60 to 80 beats per minute, and can vary based on many factors. It can be affected by age, fitness level, gender, certain medications, genetics, and anxiety. If a low RHR is an indication of overall health, you are doing well.   However when it comes to weight loss, it would be important to pay attention to your training heart rate zones and invest in a heart rate monitor.

It is human nature to be motivated by feedback and that’s exactly what a heart rate monitor provides – constant, encouraging feedback throughout the workout. The most advanced, sophisticated monitors also include daily, weekly and monthly tracking features.

The basic HRM is a simple device: a wireless strap goes around your chest and transmits your heart rate to a wristwatch that tells you how hard your body is working when you do any physical activity. Maybe the issue with the last 10 pounds is your diet or maybe it has to do with how intense you are training.  I can’t exercise without one because I’m an information freak! Knowing what zone I’m working in and relating it to how I train each week gives me the incentive I need to stay in the game day after day. The HRM is a tool that delivers.

Know the zones

To get the most from HRT, you need to start with your Maximum Heart Rate, or “Max HR.” This is the highest possible number of beats per minute. It will vary by individual. Physicians and trained fitness professionals can administer a test to determine the most accurate max HR. But most healthy, moderately active exercisers—those individuals with no adverse cardiovascular conditions—can calculate max HR with a very generalized math equation by subtracting their age from 220. For example, if you’re 37, your max HR is 220 – 37 = 183.

Once you know your max HR, you can calculate how the five HRT zones apply to you. Although some fitness facilities use their own zone terminology, the five zones described below are widely used in our industry:

  • Zone 1: warm up zone (50 – 60% of max HR). Even though this is an easy, comfortable zone, exercisers don’t like to spend too much time here because they aren’t burning lots of calories. However working out in this zone will help to get your body ready for the workout to come and ignite those fat burning furnaces- the mitochondria.  This zone gets the blood pumping, warms up the muscles and joints and starts the oxygen flowing. This can also be used as the cool-down, or recovery, zone.
  • Zone 2: moderate aerobic zone (60 – 70% of max HR). At this rate, you’re burning fat by training your fat cells to release fat and training your muscles to use fat as fuel. In this zone, approximately 85% of the calories burned are fat. Exercising in zones 2 and 3 benefits the cardiovascular system, enhancing the body’s ability to provide oxygen to working muscles.
  • Zone 3: intense aerobic zone (70 – 80% of max HR).This is the zone for endurance training. Your respiratory system, heart and blood vessels are growing stronger. You’re taking in more oxygen. In this zone, you’re burning about 50% carbohydrates and 50% fat but you’re burning more calories overall because you’re working harder.
  • Zone 4: anaerobic zone (80 – 90% of max HR).This high-intensity zone burns more carbohydrates and less fat. Benefits of anaerobic training include improved oxygen consumption and higher lactic acid tolerance for enhanced endurance. In this zone, you reach your Anaerobic Threshold (AT), the point at which your muscles are producing lactic acid faster than your system can flush it out.
  • Zone 5: red line zone (90 – 100% of max HR).Training in this zone burns the most calories but the lowest percentage of fat. Only the most physically fit exercisers should spend any time training in this zone. Exercisers who utilize this zone usually do so for brief periods, as part of an interval training regimen.

For most exercisers, spending too much time in zones 4 and 5 can lead to burnout. Spending too much time in the low-intensity zones, on the other hand, can lead to a discouraging lack of results.   Planning your week to include zone training with a majority of it in zone 2 and 3 may help the scale start to move.

So the secret to losing the last 10 pounds may have more to do with your training heart rate zones than anything else!

Chris Freytag is a nationally known fitness expert on NBC-TV, the fitness expert for Prevention magazine, and author of 3 books. Chris holds a BA in Journalism and is a certified Group Fitness Instructor, Personal Trainer and Lifestyle and Weight Management consultant.  Visit her website for more information about her products or exercise DVDs.
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Join the discussion One Comment

  • I do my cardio thrice a week and from zone 1 or the warm up zone, I go straight to zone 4 or 5(red line zone) in which I read here, is the cause of my burnout. Maybe that’s why I’m doing heavy breathing most of the time while my body’s burning hot. I really need to plan my training and should keep everything in moderate. Glad to know more about health and fitness advices in here. I think I’ll keep on reading more posts.

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