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Training With 5 Exercise Heart Rate Training Zones

By Sally Edwards - from Heart Zones - The Training and Education Company

You may think that training is just for athletes. I absolutely believe that with few exceptions everyone can train to create change which leads to a good healthy life. Exercise is as different for everyone as change is different.

Whether you want to change by shedding a few pounds or you just want to feel good about yourself, then here's a way that, if you follow it, you may end up on the wellness road to a new life.

What I'm talking about is Heart Zones Training, the best approach to all-around fitness I've found. This isn't a one-size-fits-all concept. It works for a 50-year-old athlete like me, a 60-year old with a family history of heart problems, a 70-year old wanting to improve strength, or an 80-year old who wants to climb to the third floor of a building without puffing. It works for a 20-year-old who wants to get fitter, a 30-year-old who has become more sedentary from too much time in front of a computer, and a 40-year-old who is preparing for a second wedding ceremony and wants to be their best.Training With 5 Exercise Heart Rate Zones

Let's take it one part at a time and first look at those three words: Heart Zone Training.

That's easy. Your heart's a muscle; you can strengthen it. It's a use-it-or-lose-it muscle so if you don't do cardiovascular exercise, you'll lose the hearts functional ability.

A zone is simply a range of heart beats. Recent research has shown powerful benefits from exercising in several different zones to get maximum benefit.

Training is the regime of exercising to achieve a goal. It's different than exercising. When you exercise you are doing it for the joy and benefit of the exercise. When you train, you want to accomplish a goal.

Take my 58-year-old friend Sara whose young grandchildren are really paying attention to her workouts. Today, I see her reaping the benefits of paying attention to her body. She looks good, she feels good, and her annual physical give her straight "A"s for low blood pressure, low body fat and low cholesterol. She's running her grand dads around now.

You can have similar results. It all starts with the beating of your heart.

Heart rates are measured in beats per minute (bpm). Our ambient heart rate is that measurement when you are sitting, relaxed, sedentary and it should be around 70 bpm for most people. In general, the lower your ambient rate, the better. World-class athletes have ambient heart rates in the 40's and 50 bpm range.

Your resting heart rate is measured when you first wake up in the morning before you get out of bed. The lower the number the better. Common resting heart rate numbers are in the 50-60s but again, those really fit athletes commonly display resting heart rates in the 30's and 40's.

Your Maximum Heart Rate (Max HR) is the fastest your heart can beat for one minute. A generalized rule anchors your Max HR using a mathematical formula but it has a lot of error in it because it allows it to drop as you get older.

In fact, Max HR doesn't decrease if you maintain your fitness (it does if you become de-conditioned). So using a formula based on age just doesn't work well enough. If you have to have one then use the one that we have found to be more accurate:

New Mathematical Formula Age/Weight Predicted Maximum Heart Rate

Males:   210 minus 1/2 your age minus 5% of your body weight + 4 
Females:  210 minus - 1/2 your age minus 1% of your body weight  + 0 

Let me give you an example. I am 50 years old and weight 130 pounds. My arithmetic formula then would be as follows:

210 - 25 (50% x 50 years) minus 1.3 + 0 (female) = Max HR of 183 bpm

That's fairly close (within 10 beats) of my actually tested maximum heart rate which is 193 bpm.

If you ever go to an athletic club or gym and see the Max HR charts you have to be cautious. They aren't very accurate. Maximum heart rate is genetically determined, it simply isn't going to decrease according to those charts.

A few tips about Max HR which you may be curious about. It's altitude sensitive and increases as you go higher and it also is affected by drugs such as beta blocks and even antihistamines. It cannot be increased by training and a high Max HR does not predict better performance.

Measuring Your Max HR
Important note! Before you self-test, please read the "Before Your Start" section at the end of this article.

You won't reach your Max HR with these tests, but they give you a range within which your Max HR probably lies. First step is to rate your fitness level as follows:

Poor shape. You have not exercised regularly during the last two months.

Fair shape. You walk a mile or more or pursue any aerobic activity for twenty minutes at least three times per week.

Good shape. You exercise regularly more than an hour a week or walk or run at least five miles a week.

The second step is take either or both of these tests.

One Mile Walk Test
Find a track, perhaps at a local school, and walk four continuous, evenly paced laps as fast as you can in your current condition. The first three laps put you on a heart-rate plateau where you hold steady for the fourth lap.

Determine your average heart rate for this final lap. Then to predict your Max HR, add 40 bpm if you are in poor shape; for fair shape, add 50; and for good shape, add 60.

The Step Test

Use an eight-inch step. Warm up appropriately. Then, use this four count step sequence: right foot up, left up, right down, left down. Counting "up, up, down, down" as one set and keep a steady pace of 20 sets per minute.

Measure your average heart rate during the third minute, then predict your Max HR by adding 55 bpm if you are in poor shape, 65 for fair shape and 75 for good shape. That number is your predicted maximum heart rate.


Heart zones, expressed as a percentage of your Max HR, reflect exercise intensity and the result benefit. Once you have established your Max heart rate, we provide a chart to show you your specific zones. There are five heart zones and they are each 10% of your Max HR so just fill in these numbers below:

Percentage of your Max  Heart Rate Examples Enter Your Heart Rates
50%     of your Max Heart Rate  = ( example 90 beats per min )  
60%     of your Max Heart Rate  = ( example 108 beats per min )  
70%     of your Max Heart Rate  = ( example 126 beats per min )  
80%     of your Max Heart Rate  = ( example 144 beats per min )  
90%     of your Max Heart Rate  = ( example 162 beats per min )  
100%   of your Max Heart Rate   = (example 180 beats per min.)  

To determine your zone just join together the percentages and put them in the chart below. It's easy and takes just seconds to know your heart zones.

% of Heart Range Enter Your  heart Rate
 Range for Each Zone
1 50%-60%   - bpm (example 90 to 108 BPM)
2 60%-70%   - bpm  
3 70%-80%   - bpm  
4 80%-90%   - bpm  
5 90%-100% - bpm  

Using the 5 zone system to plan your exercise program. 
1  minute spent exercising  in zone 1 = one exercise point
  2  minutes spent exercising  in zone 2 = two exercise points
    3  minutes spent exercising  in zone 3 = three exercise points
   4  minutes spent exercising  in zone 4 = four  exercise points
 5  minutes spent exercising  in zone  5 = five exercise points

To understand the benefits of each of the 5 zones, and to set up a personal training program, please continue reading this article.

Inside each zone, there are different exercise changes which occur as the result of spending training time "in the zone".   Let's go through each one briefly so you know why you want to train in the different zones.

Zone 1

50%-60% of your individual Max HR
This is the safest, most comfortable zone, reached by walking briskly. Here you strengthen your heart and improve muscle mass while you reduce body fat, cholesterol, blood pressure, and your risk for degenerative disease. You get healthier in this zone, but not more fit -- that is, it won't increase your endurance or strength but it will increase your health.

If you're out of shape, have heart problems, or simply want to safeguard your heart without working too hard, spend most of your training time here. It's also the zone for warming up and cooling down before and after more vigorous zones.

Zone 2

60% to 70% of your individual Max HR.
It's easily reached by jogging slowly. While still a relatively low level of effort, this zone starts training your body to increase the rate of fat release from the cells to the muscles for fuel.

Some people call this the "fat burning zone" because up to 85 % of the total calories burned in this zone are fat calories which is equally as important.

Fit and unfit people burn fat differently. The more fit you are, the more effectively you use fat to maintain a healthy weight. On the other hand, perhaps you've been exercising vigorously, but not losing the weight you expected to. Could be you've been working too hard and need to drop back to this zone and exercise longer. To burn more total calories you'll need to exercise for more time in this zone.

Zone 3

70%-80% or your individual Max HR
In this zone -- reached by running easily as an example -- you improve your functional capacity. The number and size of your blood vessels actually increase, you step up your lung capacity and respiratory rate, and your heart increases in size and strength so you can exercise longer before becoming fatigued. You're still metabolizing fats and carbohydrates at about a 50-50 rate which means both are burning at the same ratio.

Zone 4

80%-90% of your individual Max HR
This zone is reached by going hard -- running faster. Here you get faster and fitter, increasing your heart rate as you cross from aerobic to anaerobic training. At this point, your heart cannot pump enough blood and oxygen to supply the exercising muscles fully so they respond by continuing to contract anaerobically.

This is where you "feel the burn." You can stay in this zone for a limited amount of time, usually not more than an hour. That's because the muscle just cannot sustain working anaerobically (this means without sufficient oxygen) without fatiguing. The working muscles protect themselves from overwork by not being able to maintain the intensity level.

Zone 5
90% to 100%
of your individual
Max HR.
This is the equivalent of running all out and is used mostly as an "interval" training regiment -- exertion done only in short to intermediate length bursts. Even world-class athletes can stay n this zone for only a few minutes at a time. It's not a zone most people will select for exercise since working out here hurts and there is an increased potential for injury.

Now I want to put these zones together for you in what I call the Training Tree. You go up and down the limbs of your new exercise tree depending on your goals, at your own speed. As you climb the branches, you'll increase your all-around fitness and your body will experience wonderful, truly incredible changes. Here in brief are the different limbs:

Base Branch:
As you exercise here, your workouts will feel easy. Your ambient and your resting heart rate and blood pressure will drop and you'll see your body change as you develop your ability to do continuous exercise time. Stay on this limb for 4-6 weeks of training time before you move up to the next branch.

Workouts should be slow and easy and can include walking, biking, swimming, skating, and circuit training. Aim for three 30-minute workouts a week with about 10 minutes in Zone 1, Zone 2, Zone 3.

You're training to develop a base level of strength and endurance which will sustain a workout without a great deal of fatigue and muscle soreness. When the routine feels too easy, reach up and grab that next branch.

Here you expand on your systems ability to sustain longer training periods, what we can improved endurance. Your body can now carry more oxygen to your muscles and break into your fat storage cells to burn fat calories as it adapts to it's new workload. You'll find yourself going the same distance at a lower heart rate -- proof in fact of increasing fitness.

Train her for four to six weeks. Activities might include brisk walking, biking, swimming, easy jogging, low-impact aerobics. Aim for five 30-minute sessions a week. For each workout, spend 5 minutes in Zone 1, 10 minutes in Zone 2 and 15 minutes in Zone 3.

This adds resistance training which will make you stronger by increasing the work. For example, add hills as you walk, start some running, stair climbing or weight training.

Perform four or five training sessions of 30-40 minutes each week divided as follows: Zone 1, 5 minutes; Zone 2, 10 minutes; Zone 3, 20 minutes; Zone 4, 5 minutes.

Many people stay on this branch for maintenance of a healthy, all-around fit lifestyle. The next three branches are for those who seek to become high performance athletes, so I'll just touch on them briefly.

This limb gets you faster by doing "interval training" which simply means mixing hard training in Zones 4 and 5 with easy training in Zones 1 and 2.

This branch is for serious athletes who want to race at their best. Please refer to Edwards' latest book SMART HEART (206 pages, 1997) for more information on high performance heart zone training.

I saved this for last because it serves a vital function, especially for those who climb to the higher branches where the oxygen grows ever so thin. Here you rest and exercise simultaneously. By staying in low heart zones for short workouts, you can recuperate from too much exercise, an illness or injury that forced you down from higher branches.

I urge you to cross-train while in each of these zones. This means varying the demands on your body by walking one day, for example, biking the next, and swimming another.

My book Heart Zone Training gives a number of sample training programs for each branch. It also describes how to maintain a personal heart Zone Training log where you record your training in various zones to evaluate your total effort over a period of time.


Exercise must fit you as an individual. I'm convinced it's the integration of the mind, the body, and the spirit that works in the log in run.

If you've been working out regularly, you may find yourself reaching for another level of fitness. If you're a beginner or haven't worked out for more than two months, commit yourself to the Base Branch of the Training Tree for just one month.

Remember, the whole point is to get going. You'll begin to see positive benefits as you feel more energy and sleep better. I predict you'll also feel a real boost to your self-esteem that will make it fun to keep going.

And you might keep in mind the mantra that my friend Sara recites on those days when training takes some extra efforts and there is an addition to the grand kid number. "It's not that I have to do this," she says. "It's that I can."


If you have not been training regularly, answer these questions first:

Are you a man over 40 or a woman over 50?

Have you ever been told you have heart problems, high blood pressure, or a bone or joint problem, such as arthritis, that has been or could be aggravated by certain types of exercise?

Do you frequently suffer from chest pains, feel faint or have dizzy spells?

Are you taking prescription medication, such as those for high blood pressure?

Is there another medical reason why you think perhaps you should not exercise?

If you answered "yes" to any of these questions, consult your healthcare provider before you being training.


As you train, it's important to be able to quickly measure your heart rate. You can get a rough estimate by finding your pulse in your wrist or a precise measurement by using a heart monitor.

For the manual method, take a watch and count for 6 seconds then multiply your county by ten to find your heart rate. You only need a watch which has seconds but you can easily be off by 10-20 bpm because of the short time counting interval.

You may, like I do, prefer a heart monitor which I believe is the most powerful and motivational piece of exercise equipment you can have. It consists of a chest transmitter that you wear and a wireless receiver worn like a wristwatch.

Ten years ago, monitors cost in the $500 price range. Today, they cost as low as $45. To see a complete selection of heart rate monitors, click here.


Sally Edwards is passionate about exercise and she practices what she preaches. She's a ranked "ultra" athlete who's finished fourteen Ironman triathlons and numerous other "extreme" races.

In 1994, she set the woman's record for the Iditashoe, a 100 mile snowshoe event in Alaska. In 1995 and again in 1996 she participated in the 370-mile Eco Challenge adventure race.

Her women's team finished first in the 3,200 mile cross country bicycle race, Race Across America in 7 days and 22 hours. To celebrate her 50th birthday the next month she captained a four-person team racing in China in seven sports including kayaking, off-road inline skating, mountain climbing and more. In October, she finished her fourteenth Ironman Triathlon in Hawaii which includes a 2.4 mile swim, 112 miles by bike, then a full 26.2 mile marathon.

Edwards holds a graduate degree in exercise physiology from Berkeley and a master's degree in business. She has authored more than a dozen books and is noted for her inspirational public speaking and support of charitable concerns , especially The Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation. A Sacramento, California resident, she served in Viet Nam with the Red Cross.

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