When you work out, how do you tell if you’re getting the most out of a workout? Are you pushing too hard or not hard enough? Targeting your aerobic heart rate zone and exercising at the right intensity can help you maximize the effectiveness of your aerobic workouts and better meet your fitness goals.
The word aerobic means “needs oxygen,” and oxygen provides a steady stream of energy to the body during aerobic exercises, or cardio. Aerobic exercise burns both fat and carbohydrates (also called glycogen) for energy. It increases your heart rate for a longer period than other forms of activity. Generally, you use your major muscle groups continuously to bring your heart rate into this zone.
The aerobic heart rate zone is a heart rate between 70% and 80% of your maximum heart rate (MHR). You reach it while exercising at moderate to vigorous intensity. In this zone your breathing quickens, but you’re not out of breath, and you can still have a conversation with a person running next to you. The aerobic heart rate zone is zone three of the five heart rate zones.
Exercises in this zone are sustainable for long periods of time, at least 40 minutes. Moderate aerobic activities include brisk walking, swimming and mowing the lawn (with a push mower).
At least 150 minutes a week of moderate activity or 75 minutes per week of vigorous aerobic activity is recommended by the Department of Health and Human Services. Ramping up to 300 minutes (five hours) or more of moderate aerobic activity, or 150 minutes (2.5 hours) of vigorous aerobic activity has additional health benefits for most people.
Aerobic heart rate is based on max heart rate for your age, gender and conditioning. A commonly used max heart rate formula is subtracting your age from 220. By this method, the max HR for a 40-year-old is 180 beats per minute (BPM). However, this equation does not consider your specific variables, such as gender, genetics, conditioning, etc.
Other formulas that include more detail (and more math) include the Tanaka formula (208 – 1.7 x age) and the Gulati formula (206 – 0.88 x age, for women only) but these formulas also make broad generalizations and don’t allow for the variables listed above.
You can use a heart rate zone calculator or charts like the one here to find your results based on your personal characteristics. Other factors that can affect heart rate include:
Learn More: Running Heart Rate Zones
Aerobic exercise provides numerous benefits including reducing your risk of a heart attack, stroke and type 2 diabetes. Other benefits include:
Moderate aerobic workouts do not have to include jogging or walking mile after mile on hard pavement, or swimming laps in a pool. Varying types of exercise will help you work different muscle groups, avoid letting your body get used to the strain, and let you find workouts that you personally enjoy.
Vigorous aerobic activity occurs when your breath is coming hard and fast and it’s difficult to talk or maintain a conversation with your exercise partner. These workouts consume more oxygen to complete the activity. Examples include:
Anaerobic exercise involves short, intense bursts of movement, and burns only carbohydrates for energy. While your body can take in enough oxygen to sustain your activity level during aerobic exercise, anaerobic exercise causes your muscles to need more energy than oxygen can provide. This means your muscles begin breaking down glucose to produce lactic acid.
The target heart rate for anaerobic exercise is between 80% and 90% of your max heart rate. These exercises generally target specific muscle groups, such as biceps, triceps, quads, etc.
This heart rate zone is useful in non-endurance sports and activities that require power output, such as weightlifting, sprinting and interval running, and high intensity interval training (HIIT). An exercise program or training plan that includes aerobic and anaerobic components can help you gain lean muscle mass and burn fat more quickly than just one or the other.
WHOOP is a heart rate monitor that measures your HR 24/7 and quantifies the strain your body takes on each day, and for specific workouts and activities. When you track your exercise with the app’s Strain Coach, you can see your heart rate zones in real time, so you’ll know if you need to hold back or turn it up to get into your target heart rate zone.
Each morning, the WHOOP recovery metric (calculated using heart rate variability, resting heart rate, respiratory rate and sleep) lets you know how prepared your body is to take on strain. The Strain Coach then gives you exertion-level recommendations based on your recovery, enabling you to workout for the optimal duration and intensity relative to what your body is ready to handle.