Exercise heart rate too high?
January 28, 2016 11:06 AM   Subscribe

I've gotten back into hitting the gym, going five times a week since just before Christmas. I'm about 15 pounds overweight and would like to slim down and just get healthier and more energetic. I tend to do cardio such as treadmill running or use the cross trainer for about 30 minutes at a time doing high intensity interval training. I'm in my mid-forties, and my heart rate goes up to around 175 average during the intervals, and sometimes gets as high as 185.

Is this bad? I tend to read my kindle while I'm working out and I can still read it during the intervals although it's more difficult to concentrate. I sweat a lot, but I can still speak to others if necessary and I don't feel like I'm going to die. I usually leave the gym feeling like I could have done more.

Should I be concerned and try to keep my heart rate lower? If so I think I'll feel like I haven't had a "real" workout. And while we're here do you have any other tips for me please?
posted by hazyjane to Health & Fitness (15 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
What is your resting heart rate?
posted by pintapicasso at 11:14 AM on January 28, 2016

Response by poster: Strangely low, like 55 or 60.
posted by hazyjane at 11:15 AM on January 28, 2016

If you feel okay, then I think it's fine. I'm a marathon runner (female, age 37), and my HR during track work often goes up to 180 or so. During a race I think it's gone as high as 192. During my easy runs, it stays around 140-150. You may just have a high maximum heart rate.
posted by barnoley at 11:21 AM on January 28, 2016

As an athlete, I would say that unless there are problems that you're experiencing, then your heartrate of 175 to 185 is totally fine.

I'm in my early 30s and I can tap about 183bpm - and I've certainly known some people who regularly hit way, way higher.

Your heartrate is a sign that your body is working - in response to the demands of the activity you are doing, your body is working harder to deliver oxygen to your muscles. If you were to try to keep your heart rate lower, you'd basically be doing - well - interval training that was not high intensity. You'd be doing easier workouts. And easier workouts don't stimulate ongoing adaptation.
posted by entropone at 11:23 AM on January 28, 2016

I wear a heart rate monitor band when working out (as part of a research study). When I compare the rate shown on the exercise equipment vs the rate coming from the band it generally varies by a pretty significant amount. There is a lot of good information in the previous thread that jessamyn posted, but I'd also caution you against trusting that the heart rate information displayed on the machine is accurate.
posted by galvanized unicorn at 11:25 AM on January 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I've checked it using a heart rate monitor as well as on the machines and manually by feeling my pulse on my neck and timing it, and it's always 170+ on intervals. I've just checked my resting heart rate (well, my slobbing out on the couch heart rate) and it was 53. Sorry I missed your question, jessamyn!
posted by hazyjane at 11:29 AM on January 28, 2016

Like you, my resting heart rate is 55-60 and it goes up high and fast during vigorous but not excessive exercise. When I started doing vigorous elliptical about 15 months ago, it would go up into the low one seventies or even to one eighty; now it is usually in the low 160s, so it has been improved by sustained vigorous exercise but not to where it "should" be. I know from various medical workups that my heart is fine, so while IANAD, it is perfectly possible to have this pattern and have it be normal.
posted by Frowner at 11:31 AM on January 28, 2016

Sorry I missed your question, jessamyn!

Not a problem. Several years later, even after regular exercise it still hovers in the high ranges (and I did test it with a real heart monitor, same thing).
posted by jessamyn at 11:33 AM on January 28, 2016

Also, I usually leave the gym feeling that I could have done more but still feeling some tiredness (and if I really wear myself out I'm slow at work the next day).
posted by Frowner at 11:35 AM on January 28, 2016

I was a competitive bike racer in the 90s and early 2000s, late 20 and early 30s in age. I did some training with a heart rate monitor and used to hit low 200s during hard intervals and sprints. Now I'm in my mid-40s and it still gets up around 190 during the toughest parts of a workout.

If your heart is in good shape, it can do more, and beat faster. If you were a couch potato and your HR spiked to 180+, well for your own sake take it easy! If you have been athletic for years and your body is used to this kind of high intensity exertion, well chances are this is just the way you are.

Of course, I am not a doctor so grain of salt all 'round.
posted by Mister_A at 11:40 AM on January 28, 2016

Each person has their own max heart rate. It's not possible for your heart rate to go "too high" during an interval, really, because it's self regulating. It'll go as high as it can and if it's too much you won't be able to continue, and you'll be forced to slow down, lowering your heart rate.

You might find it useful to establish your actual maximum heart rate. There are protocols for doing it. It's somewhat useful in the sense that you can use it to work out your heart rate "zones" and use these for targets during exercise. I had it done last year on an exercise bike attended by a research physician. They did a lot of other stuff at the same time but basically the bike is an "ergmeter" that is set to a specific power level and you are required to maintain that level. Every few minutes they turned it up a set number of watts, so it got harder and harder. You basically go until you literally can't go any harder.

I've seen people my age (38) with max HR above 220. Mine is about 185. I've seen some people my age lower. So trading absolute numbers with people doesn't tell you much.
posted by RustyBrooks at 12:31 PM on January 28, 2016

I recently asked my doctor a very similar question, although my max heart rate wasn't near that high. My doctor said that as long as I felt fine, there was no need for concern.
posted by slogger at 12:33 PM on January 28, 2016

I'm similar to you. My resting heart rate is usually around 60 (a little higher when I'm not focusing on cardio for a few weeks/months; a little lower when I have). Most of my gym time involves lifting weights, during which time my heart rate typically goes up to around 170 briefly (during and immediately after sets) and then goes back down to around 120 relatively quickly (which is my cue to do another set). Interval training is around ten points higher on each end: 180-ish during high intensity, then down to around 130 by the end of the rest period.

My understanding is that HIIT isn't meant to make you feel completely exhausted or tapped out, except in short bursts at the end of each high-interval. From my perspective, your experience sounds like it's normal. If you feel fine, I wouldn't worry.
posted by Urban Winter at 12:34 PM on January 28, 2016

Nothing the note previous notes about personal hear rate data. I will add, however:
  • Lots of things will bump your hear rate up and own in the moment. Holding your breath, drinking coffee, changing altitude etc. It's worth trying to match your measured hear rate to a "Percieved Excertion".
  • more isn't always better, sometimes it's just different. Your body (because it's a human body) will adapt in different ways to different loads. If you're interested in the performance characteristics of your adaptations (say like a competitive athlete) then those loads need to be extremely specific. The idea that the spectrum of intensity can be carved up into different buckets each with a different goal and end product is often referred to a training Energy Zones. In a high performance situation training energy zones will be identified and maintained not just with quality heart rate monitors but also with blood lactic testing, respiration studies and the like. Heart rates are just one of the less invasive means of measurement available to us mere mortals.
  • Because of the above notes some care needs to be taken to not oversteer one's workout (over react to instantaneous heart rates). That being said there are lots of sites that will tell you all kinds of things about zones. A couple that aren't terrible are this one for identifying personal zones: http://www.brianmac.co.uk/hrm1.htm and this one for describing Percieved Excertion: http://www.cdc.gov/physicalactivity/basics/measuring/exertion.htm
  • As mentioned above the monitors built into your gym equipment are terrrrrible. Since Jessamyn asked her question, though, lots of things have happened to help this - namely the market of people who care has grown and the cost of the sensors have dropped. You can get ok-ish HRM in a wrist watch, you can get very very good ones in chest straps for reasonable prices. I personally use this one that will talk to almost any smart phone via Bluetooth and has a built in memory in case I don't bring a device with me - it'll sync up later.
  • Chest strap HRM like the one above also open up other HR measuring tools such as Heart Rate Variability which used to have to be done at a specialists for lots of money. I now do mine as part of my waking-up-routine.
I will note that I like to say that I make my living shouting at kids. More helpfully I coach teenagers in swim clubs. A core competency in my job is identifying, planning & measuring/tracking training cycles. If we want to be very fast in 6 months these are the subcycles of work, rest & recovery, more specific work, testing & staging, more work and racing that we need to do in order to hit our performance targets at the indicated time. This kind of work (in a performance setting) is a job and not a blog post or a wall chart. If you'd like to finish the calendar year a little fitter than last will 9hopefully) few injuries then the advice is simple:
  • spend most of your training time in a lower heart rate aerobic zone.
  • spend a little time (less than %10) at a higher (very near max) sprinting zone
  • spend very little time in between
  • get used to the idea that the "I didn't kill myself but I worked really hard for a long time so I must have had a good workout" feeling is highly misleading.
  • get a little quality advice from
    • a coach or program for injury preventing technical adaptations
    • your doctor for general health advice and ontraindications
    • a physio for specific joint & muscle recommendations for better injury recovery & prevention
    It's likely that none of the above need to be regular but all 3 are pretty good best practices.
Best of luck and have a great time sweating!
posted by mce at 1:06 PM on January 28, 2016 [4 favorites]

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