How to Develop a Stronger Heart Using a Heart Rate Monitor

Beat Heart

Those with diagnosed cardiovascular disease benefit from a supervised conditioning program and from using a heart rate monitor to develop a stronger heart. Cardiovascular disease has been established as the second leading cause of mortality in both males and females, with 4,899 cases in the former and 26,675 cases in the latter, according to recently published Canadian statistics.

Over the past few decades, an increasing interest has been raised in reducing the rates of cardiovascular disease through combating the typical risk factors. Unhealthy diet, cigarette smoking, and physical inactivity have all been alluded to as factors in increasing the risk to develop various forms of cardiovascular disease. A sedentary lifestyle of physical inactivity has repeatedly been identified as a major risk factor associated with the development of coronary heart disease, adverse cardiovascular events, and mortality

Once cleared by physicians and cardiologists to engage in physical activity, these individuals can make their programs more effective by monitoring their heart rate using electronic devices that either have a strap (Polar Heart Rate Monitors) or not.

For those with known cardiovascular issues, a Kinesiologist with a background in cardiovascular conditions, in conjunction with your cardiologist, will design a proper cardiovascular training program to help you develop a stronger heart. The heart “learns” to beat less frequently at higher levels of exertion and becomes more efficient at pumping out more blood per beat (what we call a higher stroke volume), which is directly related to your cardiac output. Aerobic exercise also improves whole body vascularization, so your blood flows more easily and increases the amount of oxygen carrying mitochondria, so you breathe more easily.

Determining Your Resting Heart Rate

The best way to determine your resting heart rate is to lie down in a quiet place for five minutes, first thing in the morning, count your pulse for 10 seconds and multiply that number by 6. Find your pulse either at your wrist near the base of your thumb or on your neck. Healthy ranges, without medication, are between 60-80 bpm. Do this at least three days in a row and take the average. To be more accurate, purchase a heart rate monitor from most any athletic or running store. 

Finding Your Maximum Heart Rate

There are physical maximal heart rate tests, such as running up a hill as fast as you can go.  However, this is very intense and not appropriate nor needed for anyone who is unfit or has a cardiovascular disease.  Maximum heart rate is different for each activity. For example, there are less demands on the heart while cycling and swimming because the body is supported by the bike while cycling and supported by the buoyancy of water while swimming.   Most of the time, it is is estimated based on age.

The old method of 220 minus age was from the 1970s and is out-dated. It turns out that men and women need to use different formulas! ​

Men:  216 - (.93 * age) = MaxHR

Women 216 - (.67 * age) = MaxHR

Determining Heart Zones to Use While Exercising 

I've used heart monitors to train for cross country skiing and running for over 20 years.  Heart rate zones are guides so that exercisers keep at the right intensity for the desired training effect.  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.

In the last five years, I've come across several different ways to calculate zones. Choosing which method to use is a matter of how granulated you want to get with your training.  Anyone seeking general fitness  3-5 zones is generally enough, though I have seen methods that use more such as 1, 2, 3, 4, 5a, 5b, 5c and 5.

Joel Friel, a highly regarded cycling and triathlon coach has a good article for figuring out heart zones based on the activity. With many heart rate monitors, this calculation is based on your age, gender and estimated max heart rate. These can also be entered in manually.  His calculations are based on lactate threshold, which is the highest intensity a can person run, cycle or swim at for a sustained period of time. Otherwise lactate accumulates in the blood more rapidly and they need to slow down. Athletes test this with blood analysis or estimate it based on regular fitness tests. Lactate Threshold is not needed for those seeking general fitness. 

Heart Rate Training Zone for Improved Heart Health

Without a heart rate monitor, an excellent way to check if the intensity needs to be dereased or increased is the talk test.  If you can easily carry on conversation, it isn't is too easy; if you can't spit out a sentence, it's time to slow down and catch your breath! 

The best zone for improved heart health is 60-70% (Heart Rate Reserve HRR). Basically 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.

Let's use a 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, math instructors always taught us to only round up at the end of the calculation otherwise error is introduced early on!

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

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

To improve their cardiovascular health and lower their risk for heart disease, this person needs to be exercising between 125 bpm and 137 bpm for 20-30 minutes  3-6 days per week

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

Click to Tweet

Disclaimer.  This article is for general information purposes. Some medications like beta-blockers will actually lower your heart rate. In that case it is better to use perceived effort such as the talk test as describe above.  If you have any previous diagnosis of heart disease check with your doctor before beginning an exercise program and ask them about any restrictions or cautions.

Finding a Decent Heart Rate Monitor

Polar really pioneered this whole technology space. I remember when the watches were bigger than my wrist (I was in my early teens too) and you couldn't wear them as fashion pieces out to dinner!  I've tried several different brands over the years and keep coming back to Polar for their reliability and accuracy.  Garmin was suggested when I wanted GPS and their additional running data is fascinating, so I use both. Polar heart rate straps usually pair with most commercial cardio gym equipment displays as well. 

Mio started to come out with strapless monitors over a decade ago, however because the heart is sending an electrical signal to the watch, users needed to place two fingers on the watch to display current heart rate. Heart rate lowers quickly once activity stops.  There are other strapless options for continuous monitoring, such as the FitBit, but again their accuracy is being highly questioned. A class-action suit claims FitBit inaccurately measures heart rates, which from a health care practitioner point of view is very dangerous.

Bluetooth heart rate straps from will pair with phone applications. Just check to see which straps are compatible with the software.  Of course Polar Bluetooth straps will pair with Strava! Users no longer need to have the watch.  The straps can often be bought separately.  

My recommendation is to stick with leaders in the space: Garmin and Polar.  Basic ones will have heart rate and exercise time. That is all you really need, unless your love the data like me or go outside. Then having GPS, speed and pace and the ability to upload your data track progress are always fun. 

Find activities that make your heart sing and fill you with joy.

Alfred Ball

CEO | Practicing Kinesiologist | Certified Fascial Stretch Therapist. He founded Lifemoves in 2007. He has been a Practicing Kinesiologist and Certified Strength and Conditioning Coach with the NSCA for over 15 years. When he isn't helping people regain their strength and confidence to move with ease he is hanging out with his wife and young son, writing, or training for his next endurance running race. His big audacious goal is to qualify for the Boston Marathon.

Click Here to Leave a Comment Below

Leave a Comment: