How Do I Find My Target Heart Rate Range?

Dear Tara Marie,

I just began an exercise program.  I have always heard about the aerobic “target heart rate range,” but I don’t know how to find my range or what it represents.  Please help!

Laurie, Staten Island, NY

Dear Laurie,

I totally understand your confusion! The “target heart rate range” is considered the range in which you can do your cardiovascular activity “aerobically,” meaning depending primarily on the aerobic energy-generating process.  The term aerobic literally means “living in air” and refers to the use of oxygen to meet energy demands during exercise via aerobic metabolism. Generally, light-to-moderate intensity activities that are supported by aerobic metabolism can be performed for extended periods of time.

Some people must monitor their heart rate diligently due to a past cardiac event or another health issue.  These people should wear a heart rate monitor, which will provide an accurate, up-to-the-minute reading of their heart rate.

For people for whom there is no cardiac concern, there are 3 easy ways to gauge exercise intensity, and I teach all 3 methods to my clients.

1. THE KARVONEN FORMULA is a formula used to calculate 50-80% of your “heart rate reserve” to determine your Target Heart Rate Range.  It is based on a clinically determined maximum heart rate of 220 beats per minute.  This is how you calculate your range using the Karvonen Formula:

Subtract your age from 220 to determine your maximum heart rate.

Subtract your resting heart rate from your maximum heart rate.

(Note that your resting heart rate is taken first thing in the morning before you sit up in bed.  Take your pulse for one full minute.  I tell my clients to do so 3 days in a row and average the 3 readings to determine your resting heart rate.)

Multiply this number (220 minus your age, minus your resting heart rate) by .5 and .8 to determine 50-80% of your heart rate reserve.


Now add your resting heart rate to the values calculated to be 50-80% of your heart rate reserve to determine your TARGET HEART RATE RANGE for one minute.

Divide this number by 6 to get your target heart rate range for a 10-second count.


While exercising, periodically take your pulse for 10 seconds (while still moving lightly) and it should fall between the two numbers of this range to be considered within your Target Heart Rate Range.


2. RATING OF PERCEIVED EXERTION is a scale used to measure the intensity of exercise.  The RPE scale runs from 0 to 10, with 0 = nothing at all, and 10 = very, very heavy exertion.

You should exercise at a level that feels like a 3 (moderate) to a 4 (somewhat heavy).

When using this scale, remember to include feelings of shortness of breath as well as how tired you feel in your legs and overall physical fatigue.


3. THE TALK TEST is a simple test based on your ability to carry on a conversation during aerobic activity.  You should be able to speak without gulping for air or feeling totally out of breath.  Being slightly out of breath between words means you are keeping a good pace.  If you are sucking air, can’t get a word out and have a bright red face, you need to peel back your intensity.

Bring down your intensity level until you feel challenged (but not exhausted) and you can maintain a steady pace.  When you can hold a steady pace and feel challenged but not overwhelmed, that is a good indication that you are likely in your Target Heart Rate Range.

Use all or some of these methods to determine exercise intensity and you will be fine.  Again, if you are considered high-risk for cardiac problems, please invest in a heart rate monitor so you don’t take any chances. Also ask your doctor if there is an upper limit (regarding heart beats per minute) that you should stay below to be safe.

Keep moving!

~ Tara Marie