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The Health Math: How To Calculate Maximum Heart Rate

by Gloria Louden
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If you’ve been researching how to improve your exercising routine, you’ve probably come across the term maximum heart rate. Relying on your heart rate can be quite useful if you’re trying to burn calories. However, figuring out how to calculate maximum heart rate may leave you feeling confused.

But, determining your maximum heart rate doesn’t have to be difficult. Once you learn more about these three main ways to measure maximum heart rate, you’ll be able to incorporate it into your workouts, reaching the coveted anaerobic zone. Read on to learn more about what maximum heart rate is, how you can calculate it and use it in your workout routines.

What Is a Maximum Heart Rate?

To put it simply, a maximum heart rate is the number of heartbeats your heart produces in a minute when it’s under maximum stress. When you work out, you raise your heart rate to a certain extent. How much you raise it will depend on your resting heart rate, as well as the intensity of exercises you’re doing.

To understand your maximum heart rate, you must also learn to differentiate it from your targeted heart rate. The targeted heart rate is the number of heartbeats you’re trying to reach while doing strenuous exercise. That number is normally lower than your max heart rate. Thus, your targeted heart rate is usually between 50–85% of your maximum heart rate.

If you’re a healthy individual, you’ll be able to achieve your maximum heart rate (Max HR or MHR, for short) only if you’re working out at the highest intensity you can think of. Although it’s not advised to do that often, it’s highly beneficial to incorporate your max heart rate into your routines sparingly.

Still, when you choose to do so, make sure you take frequent breaks. Your heart rate should be able to go back to normal after about a minute of exercising to reach your max HR.

How to Achieve the Maximum Heart Rate During Your Workouts

If you’re wondering how to calculate maximum heart rate, you probably want to know how to incorporate it into your workout routine, as well. The main way to achieve your max HR is by doing high-intensity workouts. Doing spurts of 30–60 seconds of vigorous exercise with about a minute of rest in between should do the trick. Commonly known as high-intensity interval training, this way of exercising will raise your heart rate to 80–95% of your MHR.

High-intensity interval training (HIIT) is beneficial for many reasons. Firstly, it burns more calories than standard aerobic workouts, such as running on a treadmill. Secondly, it works your muscles more than lower-intensity aerobic exercises. And lastly, it promotes oxygen and blood flow, and it can help lower your blood pressure.

How to Calculate Maximum Heart Rate

Now that you know how useful knowing your maximum heart rate can be, you may be wondering — how do you measure it? You can calculate your max heart rate in three main ways:

• in a lab
• with a field test
• with an MHR formula

Each of these estimations has its benefits and shortcomings. Still, they all can, more or less precisely, approximate your maximum heart rate.

How you choose to estimate your maximum heart rate can depend on many factors:

• whether you’re willing to spend money on tests
• whether you have any health issues
• what you need your MHR for

Let’s take a look at the three most common ways to measure your maximum heart rate, their weaknesses, and what they’re useful for.

How to Calculate Maximum Heart Rate With a Formula

Calculating your heart rate with formulas is fairly easy. However, it’s important to know which formula to choose. If you calculate your heart rate with a wrong formula, you can end up with a higher maximum heart rate than you actually have. Thus, you may overexert yourself trying to reach it while exercising.

There are three main formulas you can use to calculate your maximum heart rate:

• [220 – Your Age]

With this formula, you simply subtract your age from 220. The resulting number should approximate your maximum heart rate. This formula is the most common and widely used, and it’s quite simple. However, it’s not as accurate as others, as your MHR can stay the same within five years, whereas this calculation would show a decrease.

• [207 – 0.7 x Your Age]

This formula is more precise, and it’s adjusted for people over 40. It’s also quite easy to use. You multiply your age by 0.7 and subtract that number from 207. Still, this formula can be inaccurate when used by fairly active people.

• [211 – 0.64 x Your Age]

If you’re an active person, this formula, out of the three, may give you the closest estimate of your maximum heart rate. Here, you multiply your age by 0.64 and subtract that number from 211. Although it’s not as easy to use as the first one, this formula tends to be the most accurate overall.

There are plenty of pros to using a formula to determine your maximum heart rate. You don’t have to spend money on lab results, and you don’t have to do strenuous exercises to learn your MHR. That’s why these formulas are great for people who’d like to know approximately how high their MHR is.

However, if you’d like to know the exact number, you probably won’t find it using these formulas. They focus on the theoretical maximum heart rate, ignoring the details that can influence it greatly. For example, women generally have a higher MHR than men, but a 25-year-old woman would have the same MHR as a man of the same age, according to these formulas.

Additionally, MHR varies greatly in athletes who play different sports, so the MHR of a swimmer is usually higher than that of a runner.

How to Calculate Maximum Heart Rate With a Lab Test

If you choose to determine your maximum heart rate with a lab test, you can expect much more accurate results than formulas can give you. A supervised lab test, known as a VO2 test, is always done in the presence of a cardiologist, a physiologist, or other skilled personnel. In addition to your max HR, it can determine your anaerobic, aerobic, and lactate thresholds.

A VO2 test is usually done on a treadmill. However, it can also be done on a stationary bike or any other exercise machine, such as an ergometer. During the lab test, you exercise, increasing speed or power until you’re completely exhausted.

There are two main benefits of the VO2 test. Firstly, you’ll get a much more accurate maximum heart rate than you would with an equation. Secondly, it collects other beneficial data, such as oxygen intake, lactate build-up speed, and others.

However, the VO2 test doesn’t come without its cons. You have to pay to get this test done in the presence of a professional. Additionally, you have to reach levels of exhaustion you may not be prepared for. If you have a health condition, that’s something you should be cautious of if you choose to test your maximum heart rate in a lab.

How to Calculate Maximum Heart Rate With a Field Test

If you’re wondering how to calculate maximum heart rate and you’re not an athlete, a field test isn’t something you should try. It requires you to achieve your max heart rate without the presence of a professional. For a person new to exercise, that can lead to overheating or fainting. That’s why you should stick to estimating your MHR either by using a formula or in a lab if you’re a beginner.

Additionally, beginners may not be able to achieve their maximum heart rate. You need a lot of mental strength to endure such strenuous exercise. That’s why many beginners who try to do a field test give up before they even get anywhere close to their maximum heart rate.

Still, if you’re an experienced athlete trying to learn how to calculate your maximum heart rate, a field test will give you quite accurate results. A study done by the University of Wisconsin showed that athletes achieved slightly higher MHR scores doing a field test, as opposed to a lab test. However, be cautious if you choose to try this method. Additionally, warm up and stretch for at least 20 minutes before you do the field test.

There are three common ways to measure your max heart rate with a field test — a 5K test, the 4X2 test, and the partner-assisted test.

• The 5K test

As the name suggests, you can test your max heart rate by running for five kilometers. It takes a fit person about 20 minutes to finish a 5K race. However, if you don’t have the stamina to run five kilometers in 20 minutes, you can just run for 20 minutes, disregarding how much you’ve run.

If you choose to do this test, it’s necessary that you go as hard as you can. Of course, you can slow down when you deem it necessary. However, for the last kilometer or so, run as fast as you can. Go all out, especially for the last 200 meters.

If you’ve pushed yourself hard, your heart rate will definitely be at a maximum. Measure it as soon as you’re done with the run, and the number you get is your maximum heart rate.

• The 4X2 Test

The 4×2 test works similarly to high-intensity interval training. However, there’s one key difference — the rest intervals should be shorter than the training ones. Additionally, you should be actively trying to reach your maximum heart rate. That means you have to train harder for longer than you’re used to during HIIT.

Here’s how to calculate maximum heart rate using the 4×2 test. You should work out for 2 minutes at a time, as vigorously as you can. After 2 minutes pass, rest for 1 minute, drink some water and recover. Repeat this sequence 4 times.

Measure your heart rate immediately after you finish the fourth sequence. If you gave it your all, the number you get should be quite close to your maximum heart rate.

• The Stress Test With a Buddy

If you have a friend who’s willing to measure your heart rate while you run, this method is great to try. It’s a little easier than the former two because you don’t need to worry about anything but running as fast as you can. In a way, this method is quite similar to a lab test. However, you should be more cautious, as your buddy probably isn’t a trained medical professional.

With this stress test, the idea is to run as fast as you can, for as long as you can, while wearing a chest strap that measures heart rate. Increase your speed until you can’t run any faster. Meanwhile, your friend can watch the heart rate monitor. The number of heartbeats you have per minute once you can’t run any faster is your maximum heart rate.

In Conclusion

Knowing your maximum heart rate can improve your workout routines tremendously. However, when choosing how to calculate maximum heart rate, keep in mind your current fitness level. If you’re new to fitness, it’s better to use a formula to estimate your max HR or to do it in a lab. If you’re an experienced athlete, however, you can give one of the field tests a try.

Still, remember that you’ll need to reach the limit of your physical capabilities. Make sure you stretch before and after a field test and stay hydrated.

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