Heart Rate Training: Use This Technique to Improve Your Heart Health

Heart rate training is a form of exercise that keeps your heart rate alternating between its high-intensity and recovery zones. This strategy is a highly efficient way to work the heart, by building the muscle and increasing heart and lung fitness.

In heart rate training, or an interval workout session, you would alternate intervals of high-intensity exercises, such as jogging or jumping jacks, with intervals of moderate-intensity exercises, such as walking.

What is heart rate training?

Interval training, also known as heart rate training or high-intensity interval training (HIIT), alternates between periods of vigorous exercise and low-intensity exercise or rest. This type of exercise builds the heart muscle and increases cardiovascular health.

Heart rate training will require you to push yourself hard, but it only takes about three 20-minute sessions per week to impact your heart health.

Examples would be:

  • Walking as fast as possible for 30 seconds to one minute, walking at a regular pace for one to two minutes, repeating for a total of 20 minutes; if you are accustomed to walking at a brisk pace, consider adding short periods of jogging into your routine.
  • You can do jumping jacks or some other high-intensity exercise for one minute, walk at a regular pace for one minute, and repeat (maybe with different things to jazz it up and make it more interesting) for 20 minutes.
  • You can also use a gym machine with a built-in interval training function.

What are the benefits of heart rate training?

  • Improves your heart and lung health. Heart rate training builds up the muscle in the heart and improves cardiovascular health, lowering your risk of diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease.
  • Burns more calories. The more vigorous the exercise, the more calories you burn.
  • It can be fun. Change up the exercises; add some variety or spice to your workout. Jog, walk, do jumping jacks, jump rope, use a hula hoop, ride a bike, try a mini trampoline; the possibilities are endless. As long as you alternate high intensity with low intensity, you can mix it up any way you like. You also don't need to do interval training every exercise session. You can alternate between interval training and regular longer duration exercises. For example, you can perform interval training on Monday, followed by taking a walk on Tuesday.
  • Saves time. Since interval training is so effective, if done correctly and consistently, you only need about 20 minutes of exercise three days a week, instead of the normal 30 minutes 5 days a week.
  • It can be personalized. If you do a few high-intensity exercise intervals and you feel tired or winded, walk at a moderate pace until you recover. If you are having an "off day," you can put fewer high-intensity intervals in than normal; if you feel great, you can add more.
  • Saves money. Although a gym membership or home equipment can be useful, you don't need those things for an effective interval training session.
  • Improves your outlook on life. Aerobic, or cardio, exercise can lead to better heart health; it also improves overall health and promotes feelings of well-being.

How to heart rate train

Heart rate training involves determining your maximum heart rate, or beats per minute (bpm), and then using that number to determine the "zone" you want to be in during the high-intensity intervals of your exercise sessions. Your target heart rate during a vigorous workout is about 70% to 85% of your maximum bpm. You need to get your heart rate between 60% and 70% to see cardiovascular results.

Before you begin interval training, you will need a heart rate monitor to keep track of your beats per minute. You will also need to find your maximum heart rate by subtracting your age from 220. Then figure out your goal heart rate by determining what 60% to 70% of your maximum heart rate is. This is the goal you are aiming for to start.

For example, a 40-year-old would have a maximum heart rate of 180. 60% to 70% of 180 is 108 to 126 bpm. The target heart rate during the high-intensity intervals is approximately 120 bpm.

As your cardiovascular fitness improves and you feel you can do the high-intensity intervals more easily, you can try to slowly increase your heart rate to 80% of the maximum for even more benefits. Our 40-year-old would increase their target heart rate to around 144 bpm. Keep in mind, with interval training you are not keeping your heart rate up that high for 30 minutes at a time, only for a minute or so, and then bringing it back down to a moderate pace.

Your workout should look something like this:

  1. Warm up for a few minutes. Stretch, walk, or swim at a moderate pace.
  2. Gradually build the intensity of your workout until you hit your goal heart rate; keep your heart rate up at your goal for 30 seconds to 1 minute.
  3. Gradually reduce your intensity until you are back in your "recovery zone," keep your heart rate steady here for 1 to 2 minutes, or longer if necessary.
  4. When you can, build the intensity back up to your goal heart rate for another 30 seconds to 1 minute.
  5. Repeat this cycle for 20 minutes.
  6. Cool down for a few minutes after your workout.
  7. Stretch to promote muscle recovery.

Tips for heart rate training

  • Start slowly and build up if you are new to interval training. Even if you only have one or two high-intensity intervals in your first sessions, that's a good start. Increase the intensity and number of high-intensity intervals slowly as the exercises become easier.
  • Talk to your doctor before starting any new exercise, especially a vigorous one.
  • Do a quick warm-up before each session to decrease the risk of muscle strain or injury.
  • Wear a heart rate monitor to track your heart rate and fitness level.
  • Cool down and stretch after your workout.
  • Take a rest day between sessions to give your muscles and heart a chance to recover. It's normal to feel a little sore after a heart rate training session. Taking a rest day can help.
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