…measuring our heart rate is an excellent tool for measuring exercise intensity. Simply put, your heart rate doesn’t lie.

Last week we kicked off American Heart Month by sharing some fun-facts about your heart and also talked about simple ways to measure exercise intensity.

In this post, we’re going to dive a bit deeper into heart rate (HR), and how you can use your HR to measure intensity.

First, let’s talk about what your heart does. Your heart’s job is to pump blood without oxygen to the lungs to pick up oxygen, and then to pump the oxygen-rich blood back out to your brain, muscles, organs, and even back to the heart muscle itself, all in a constant effort to keep you alive. And we don’t even have to think about it. It just happens automatically. Phew.

The heart beats in a tempo that satisfies your body’s need for oxygen. At rest, it beats just enough to get your brain and body the oxygen required to function and thrive. If more oxygen is needed, the first response of the heart is to beat faster.

One system that can require a lot of oxygen if called upon to do work, is our muscular system. For muscles to produce enough energy to sustain work, oxygen is required, along with energy from the food we eat, like carbohydrates and fats. The food-fuel molecules are burned through complex biochemical reactions right in your muscle cells, and oxygen is delivered via an intricate capillary system to aid in these reactions. The super-hero oxygen molecules swoop in riding red blood cells, freshly pumped from the heart. I like to envision them wearing capes.

You have around 4 trillion RBCs per liter of blood, every one of them carring O2 to where you need it most. And yes, that’s trillion, with a T.

All of this is to say that when we work hard, our hearts follow suit by beating faster in order to pump more blood and deliver more oxygen. Because of this phenomenon, measuring our heart rate is an excellent tool for measuring exercise intensity. Simply put, your heart rate doesn’t lie.

You can measure your HR several ways: with a simple finger to neck or wrist (count your pulse for 15 seconds and then multiply by 4), or by using a HR monitor you wear, that is built into a piece of cardio equipment (usually hand holds), or even through a smart phone app (there’s one called Instant Heart Rate that I like).

If all this heart rate/exercise intensity talk is new to you, the first step is simply starting to get in touch with how you feel at different HR numbers. Learn where your HR usually lands at rest, for light activities such as walking, for moderate aerobic activities that you can sustain, and for vigorous work that leaves you breathless. Getting in touch with our HR can be a great step in raising the awareness of our exercise intensity, and it’s not just to get people to work harder (although most of us can benefit from adding more intense minutes to our routine). Some of you warrior-like, Type-A’s who train hard, who are driven to great efforts by your goals, can actually use heart rate to pull in the reigns every now and then. Rest days are good for the consistent or heavy exerciser. Easy days help our bodies recover. Many coaches who work with endurance athletes will tell you that both recreational and professional athletes alike tend to go too hard on easy days, and sometimes not hard enough on the challenging workout days. These coaches often rely on HR monitors to make sure athletes are giving solid effort when necessary, and at the same time not overtraining when they should be taking it easy.

Next week, for those of you who are interested and want more, I’ll demonstrate how to crunch some of your HR numbers as we delve into the next level. For those of you just beginning to experiment, simply getting in touch with your HR can yield some great insights and excellent biofeedback regarding your exercise.

Have fun with it, and go play outside this weekend!



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