Whether we’re beginners when it comes to exercise or seasoned athletes, all of us have a heart rate zone that we should aim to stay within when we’re being physically active. This is called our Target Heart Rate Zone, and while you’ll hear all sorts of things about “fat burning zones,” “cardio zones,” or “VO2 max,” it’s important to start with the basics and remember that heart rate dictates how intense our exercise is.

So, people doing cardiovascular exercise are placed into 3 categories: beginner, intermediate & advanced. Depending on where you’re starting, there are different recommendations that go along with each category.

BEGINNER: Cardio training should be between 55% and 64% of your Maximal Heart Rate (HRMax). This means that once you calculate your heart rate at these two spots, you will have a ZONE to work out in! You’ll know you’re improving when you feel more energetic and less fatigued at the upper end of your zone. At this point, you should consider yourself an intermediate athlete.

INTERMEDIATE: Cardio training should be between 65% and 74% of your HRMax. At this level, you will have the cardio strength to push yourself a little harder and a little faster than you did as a beginner. You’ll notice your heart rate ZONE has increased, but you’ll be able to maintain a higher heart rate for a longer period of time. You are building endurance with your heart and muscles. After you train at this level for a certain period time, providing you are consistent, you’ll (again) feel more energetic and less fatigued at those higher heart rates. At this point, you will be able to train at a more advanced HR ZONE.

NOTE: As people become more fit in their cardiovascular health, their RESTING HEART RATE DECREASES. Resting Heart Rate is your hear rate at rest. The best way to get an accurate Resting Heart Rate is to take your pulse when you wake up in the morning, still lying in bed. It’s best to take when you wake up naturally (i.e. without an alarm) because it’s the closest possible heart rate to when you’re actually sleeping. From this Heart Rate, we can calculate all the other heart rate zones. SO, before attempting to train in a HIGHER heart rate zone, always re-check your resting heart rate first, and perform the calculations again.

ADVANCED: Cardio training can be between 75% and 90% of your HRMax. At this level, you can push your heart rate higher without feeling the fatigue you would have as a beginner or intermediate. Advanced individuals have the ability to do cardio training at a higher heart rate for a longer period of time.

Increasing your cardio strength is a great way to improve your health, body composition, and your ability to do everyday activities. Combining cardio training with resistance training (weights) is the optimal way to build lean muscle mass and lose fat mass (in combination with a healthy, balanced, nutritional diet).


The best way to calculate heart rate is the Heart Rate Reserve Method. This calculation takes into account both your Resting Heart Rate and your fitness level (i.e. whether you’re a beginner, intermediate or advanced). It’s important to take fitness level into account, because as you become fitter, your resting Heart Rate decreases!

First, let’s calculate your approximate MAXIMUM Heart Rate (HRmax):

HRmax = 220 – age

So, for a 60-year-old, their HRmax would be:

HRmax: 220 – 60 = 160

From here, we can calculate our lower and upper level target Heart Rates. For this, we use the Heart Rate Reserve Method:

Target HR = [(HRmax – resting HR) x percentage] + resting HR

The “percentage” means the zone of intensity within which you want to be exercising.

BEGINNER: between 55% and 64% of your maximum Heart Rate.

INTERMEDIATE: between 65% and 74% of your maximum Heart Rate.

ADVANCED: between 75% and 90% of your maximum Heart Rate.

Let’s look at an example:

Brenda is a 40-year-old who is just starting to exercise. Her resting Heart Rate is 75 bpm (beats per minute).

Lower target HR = [(HRmax – resting HR) x percentage] + resting HR

= {[(220 – 40) – 75] x 0.5} + 75
= [(180-75) x 0.5] + 75
= (105 x 0.5) + 75
= 52.5 + 75
= 128 bpm

Upper target HR = [(HRmax – resting HR) x percentage] + resting HR

= [(180 – 75) x 0.64] + 75
= (105 x 0.64) + 75
= 67.2 + 75
= 142 bpm

So, Brenda should keep her heart rate between 128 and 142 beats per minute while she’s exercising. To make this easier, divide each number by 6: this will give you the approximate number of beats you should count in a 10-second period. So, when Brenda is taking her pulse for 10 seconds, it should be between 21 and 23 beats.

The easiest way to take our pulse is on our neck (at our carotid artery). If you don’t know where this is, place two fingers at your ear lobe and trace them down behind your jaw until you feel a lump. This lump is your carotid artery, and it sits just behind and slightly below the pointy part of your jawbone. Place your two fingers firmly on it. Can you feel your pulse? To get a pulse reading, look at your watch or a clock. Count the beats of your pulse for 10 seconds. Once you get a number, you will know whether or not you’re within your optimal zone of exercise intensity.

Although this seems like a complicated process, targeting heart rate is a beneficial way to make sure we’re exercising at the optimal intensity for our level of fitness.

Another way to gauge your effort is to look at your PERCEIVED EXERTION.

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