If you’ve ever broken a sweat doing some form of cardiovascular exercise in order to burn fat and strengthen your heart and lungs, then you’re probably familiar with the following rule of thumb: To get the best results, you have to exercise hard enough so that you keep your heart rate within your target heart rate zone for at least 20 minutes or more.
It’s a smart strategy to stick with when you’re looking to get the most results out of any aerobic exercise program. But for many people, it’s not always an easy theory to understand, especially if you’re unsure what your “maximum heart rate” even is in the first place.
That’s why we’ve come up with a game plan to help get you started. Follow these simple steps and you’ll be that much closer to losing weight and feeling great—without all the stress.
STEP ONE: KNOW YOUR MHR
First, you need to know what your Maximum Heart Rate (or MHR) is, which is the maximum number of beats per minute that your heart is capable of beating in one minute.
To figure out that number, just subtract your age from 220 (For example, if you’re 35, then the number you should have come up with is 185.) This is the most important number you need to know, since it helps you determine how hard you should be exercising. (To be honest, the most accurate version of your MHR is something that requires an exercise stress test to determine, but this easy formula is a simple—and definitely much cheaper—way that most trainers use.)
STEP TWO: KNOW YOUR ZONES
To get the most from aerobic exercise, you HAVE to keep your heart beating between a range of 60 to 80 percent of your maximum heart rate for at least 20 minutes or more.
To get those numbers, just multiply your MHR by .6 (this is your minimum training pace). Next, take your maximum heart rate again and multiply it by .8 (this is your maximum training pace). The range between those two numbers is your target heart rate zone. Keeping your pulse between these numbers as you exercise is the best way to burn fat and improve your health.
For example, if you’re 40, then your MHR would be 180. So, you would exercise at a pace that keeps your pulse between 108 (180 x .6) and 144 (180 x .8) beats per minute.
STEP THREE: KNOW WHEN YOU’RE IN THE ZONE
To help you keep track of your pulse, buying a heart rate monitor is ideal. Or, if you’re able to, you can simply check your pulse every few minutes as you go (which is possible when riding a stationary bike, for example.)
Another easy way to tell if you’re in your zone is to talk as you exercise. If it’s impossible to talk, you’re probably pushing yourself harder than you should be and have a pulse that’s above 80 percent of your MHR. You should be able to speak short sentences, but you shouldn’t be able to sing or be able to speak long sentences with ease. If you can, then you’re most likely not challenging yourself as hard as you should be and have a pulse that’s below 60 percent of your MHR.
STEP FOUR: KNOW WHEN IT’S OK TO LEAVE THE ZONE
Staying within the zone may be your smartest bet for seeing results, but that doesn’t mean you can’t stray from it once-in-a-while.
Exercising at a lower intensity that’s below 60 percent may seem like it yields less results, but being less intense makes it easier to exercise for longer periods of time. If you take advantage of that perk, you can actually burn more calories by exercising at a slower pace and doubling your workout time.
Working out at a higher intensity that’s above 80 percent is ideal for athletes looking to improve their performance by boosting their maximum VO2 levels (which is the highest amount of oxygen your body can take in during exercise). But even though the average person doesn’t need to do that, it can also be a faster way to shed excess fat.
Although your body does burn a higher percentage of calories from stored fat when you keep your pulse between 60 to 80 percent of your MHR, you actually burn more overall calories when you exercise over 80 percent. The more calories you burn, the less calories your body will have lying around that it can turn into unwanted body fat. The only problem: this type of intensity can be too stressful for many people and can increase your risk of injury, so proceed with caution.
If you decide to push yourself above 80 percent of your MHR during your workout, try it in small doses. For example, try exercising at a higher intensity for 15-30 seconds, then bring your pace back down into your target heart rate zone for one to two minutes (then repeat this back and forth pace for the duration of your workout). This type of pace—known as interval training—actually causes your body to burn even more calories than usual, so you lose more weight at an even faster rate.