Use Heart Rate Monitors to Gain a Healthy Heart | Lifemoves
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How to Use a Heart Rate Monitor to Boost Heart Health

Learning how to use a heart rate monitor while doing cardiovascular and strength training makes these activities more effective. Anyone diagnosed with cardiovascular disease receives benefits from a supervised conditioning program. Hearts become stronger with the effective use of heart rate monitors.

How to Lower Your Risk of Heart Disease

There is growing interest in reducing the rates of cardiovascular disease. Cardiovascular disease is the second leading cause of death in Canada in both males and females. This includes 4,899 men and 26,675 women in recently published Canadian statistics.

While genetics and family history impact the likelihood of developing heart disease, hope is not lost. Some lifestyle changes can lower your risk.

An unhealthy diet, cigarette smoking, and physical inactivity all increase risk. A sedentary lifestyle of physical inactivity is a major risk factor. It is linked to developing coronary heart disease, adverse cardiovascular events, and mortality.

How to Start Exercising After a Heart Attack

The first step is to get cleared to exercise by a cardiologist. The doctor gives patients restriction and guidance on how intense to exercise. 

In British Columbia, patients are referred to an outpatient cardiac rehab program. In these programs, patients get supervision by trained nurses and exercise physiologists. 

After the sessions, people are on their own. For anyone looking to progress further, it is important to hire a kinesiologist. The kinesiologist needs to be familiar with heart rate training and heart disease. 

Patients check-in with their cardiologists every six months.

Top 4 Reasons to Train the Heart

  1. 1
    The heart “learns” to beat less often at higher levels of effort.
  2. 2
    It becomes more efficient at pumping out more blood per beat (what we call a higher stroke volume).
  3. 3
    Aerobic exercise also improves whole body vascularization. This is like adding more pipes to the body to ease blood flow.
  4. 4
    It increases the amount of oxygen carrying mitochondria. This then improves energy production and use. 
Family Exercising Together

How to Check Your Resting Heart Rate

There are several ways to learn what your resting heart rate is. The gold standard method to measure it over several nights by using a heart rate strap and smartwatch. There are watches available that track sleep quality and sleep heart rate. 

An altnernative way is to measure it when waking and before rising. If that is not possible, lie down in a quiet place for five minutes, first thing in the morning.

First, find your pulse either at your wrist near the base of your thumb or on your neck. Then count for 10 seconds and multiply by 6.  Healthy ranges, without medication, are between 60-80 beats per minute (bpm). If it is close to higher than 100 bpm, then go see a family doctor.

Take a measurement three days in a row and take average. Acholol intake, sleep quality and stress levels all impact resting heart rate.

 Buy a heart rate watch, chest strap or optical device. 

Accurately calculate heart rate training zones for improved fitness and heart health

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How to Figure Out Your Maximum Heart Rate

There are physical maximal heart rate tests, such as running up a hill as fast as possible. These are too intense, not appropriate and not needed for someone who is unfit or has a cardiovascular disease.   The easiest way is to estimate it based on age. rate

Keep in mind the maximum heart rate is different for each activity. For example, there are fewer demands on the heart while cycling and swimming than walking or running. The bike supports the body during cycling, like in swimming the water supports the body with the buoyancy. 

How to Estimate Maximum Heart Rate

The well-known formula of 220 minus age is from the 1970s. It is out of date. and is out-dated. Men and women need to use different formulas! Below are some more precise methods.

Men: 216 - (.93 * age) = MaxHR

Women: 216 - (.67 * age) = MaxHR

How to Select Heart Rate Training Zones

 Remember, heart rate zones are guides. They help people maximize the benefits of the exercise session, rest periods and the training plan.  Each zone has a different impact physiologically. These zones vary depending on the goals of the person and the workout.

If the goal is to increase endurance, don't use the higher zones, stay lower.  Heart rate monitors have alarms to keep users within a specific range.

I've used heart monitors to train for cross country skiing and running for over 30 years.

Choosing which method to use is a matter of how granulated someone want to get with their training..

  For anyone seeking general fitness a range 3-5 zones is generally enough. However, some methods use more such as 1, 2, 3, 4, 5a, 5b, 5c and 5. Lower zones are aerobic which are slower and use oxygen. Middle zones use anaerobic energy (not using oxygen, producing lactate). While, the top-end zones are short and quick, anaerobic and alactic (don't produce lactate). 

Joel Friel, a well respected cycling and triathlon coach, wrote an article to figure out heart zones based on the activity.

 Friel bases his calculation lactate threshold. (LT). LT is the highest intensity a person can run, cycle or swim while sustaining it for over 30 min. This duration for running and cycling is 60 min. Otherwise, lactate accumulates in the blood more rapidly than it is cleared.

High-performance athletes test this with blood analysis. Anyone working to improve their general fitness does not need to know their LT. 

Kinesiologists and exercise physiologists know a variety of cardio assessments. Each person's current health, training experience and goals determine the appropriate test.

Most heart rate monitors default to calculating zones based on age, gender and estimated max heart rate. There are methods to make custom zones.

Establishing Heart Rate Training Zones for Improved Heart Health

While it is hard to determine exercise intensity without a heart rate monitor, it is possible. One, way to check if the intensity needs to be adjusted is to use the talk test.  

If a conversation can carried on with ease, it is too easy. If you have to take a breath and you are talking in shorter sentences,  it's time to slow down and catch your breath! 

Exercise at 60-70% of Heart Rate Reserve to Improve Heart Health

The best zone for improved heart health is 60-70% of heart rate reserve (HRR). To find your HRR, take your maximum heart rate, calculated above, and subtract your resting heart rate.

Now multiply that by 60% and 70%  and add back your resting heart rate to get your upper and lower limits.

Now, set those zones on your training devices. The device will vibrate or beep when your heart rate is below or above these limits.

Let's use a healthy 50-year-old male with a resting heart rate of 60 beats per minute.

MaxHR  = 216 - (.93 * age) =  216 - 46.5 = 169.5

HRR = MHR -RHR = 169.5 - 60 = 109.5

60% HRR = 109.5 * .60 = 65.7    

70% HRR = 109.5 * .70 = 76.65

Now it's time to add back in the resting heart rate

Remember, that our high school math instructors taught us to only round up at the end of the calculation. 

60% HRR  = 65.7 + RHR
 =  65.7 + 60bpm = 125.7 = 126 bpm

70% HRR = 76.65 + 60bpm = 136.65 = 137 bpm

This person needs to exercise between 125 bpm and 137 bpm for 20-30 minutes  3-6 days per week.

Therefore, they will meet the recommended 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity per week. This will improve their cardiovascular health and lower their risk for heart disease.

Man Checking Heart Using a Wellness Watch

How to Find a Reliable Heart Rate Monitor

Polar pioneered this whole technology space. Health clinics, sports teams and researchers use them.

I used Polar for a long time until someone suggested Garmin for their GPS capability.  Garmin devices are well-known for their GPS, while Polar is popular for heart rate monitoring.  We use Polar at CATCH for the concussion care program.

Both companies have devices that measure heart rate, GPS, and other health information.

Optical Devices versus Chest Straps

Optical devices are devices that scan for a pulse through the skin. Chest straps measure heart rate with an electrical single. It is an ECG, much like in a hospital.

ECG devices will be the most accurate and have more data like heart rate variability (HRV).  Polar has optical devices that read from the temple while swimming and from arm bands while running or cycling.

Some people find optical options like these and smartwatches more comfortable.  Chest straps pair with most smartwatches and health monitoring apps.

How to Choose a Health Monitoring Device and Brand

With so many brands and devices out there it is hard to choose.  To choose, consider your goals, the information you would like to know and your budget.  

Every brand has several levels of price points with different functions. A budget-friendly option is an optical band or heart rate strap that syncs to a phone using Bluetooth. These are about CAD 149.

The brands I use and recommend are Fourth Frontier, Polar and Garmin. Fitbit is popular, but for some users, the devices have not lasted more than a year. Unlike, Polar and Garmin watches that are functional, but not supported after 5-10 years of use. Fitbits are also known to measure inaccurately. This scares me as a health practitioner. There was a class-action suit that claims FitBit inaccurately measures heart rates. 

Fourth Frontier monitors measure ECG continuously, which can before sent to a cardiologist or family doctor. Users can also set alerts for heart strain, breathing rate and more. The X2 is recommend for anyone with a history of or risk of heart disease.

Disclaimer:  This article is for general information purposes. Some medications like beta-blockers lower exercise heart rates. In that case, it is better to use perceived effort such as the talk test, described above.  

Talk to a doctor before starting an exercise program. Especially, if you have a history of heart disease. Ask them about any restrictions.

Note: Some links in this article lead to pages where products can be bought. By using these links to buy a device the author will receive a small percentage. It will go towards supporting this blog.

Alfred Ball

Practicing Kinesiologist | Certified Fascia Stretch Therapist | Clinical Pilates Instructor. Alfred has been a Kinesiologist since 1999. He started Lifemoves in 2007 to provide exercise therapy and fitness programs for people with injuries, chronic diseases and disabilities. His focus as a Kinesiologist is to empower and to guide people to learn to move with more strength, confidence and ease. He is an avid Lego and Star Wars fan. His other hobbires include writing, playing board games and being active outdoors.

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