Home » Fitness & Fun

Maximum Heart Rate Calculations Get an Overhaul for Women

9 July 2010 5 Comments

Have you ever worked out struggling to keep in your target heart rate zone to no avail? (she says with both arms raised high). The ever-so-awesome Katie sent me this article: Recalibrated Formula Eases Women’s Workouts. Thanks Katie!

It seems the old formula for calculating our maximum heart rates was too simplified, and this new version (which is just barely more complex) is the way to go. In the olden days (you know – last week), we would calculate our maximum heart rate by subtracting our age from 220. From there, we would calculate our target heart rate range (to try to maintain during workouts) as 65% to 85% of this number.

According to the ancient calculation, my target heart rate zone would be: 220 – 35 (my age) = 185 times 65% and 85% to be … 120 to 157, with 157 being my “target heart rate” for a good workout.

According to the modern day calculation, as a woman, my target heart rate zone would be: 206 – (35 x 88%) = 175 times 65% and 85% to be … 114 to 149, with 149 being my “target heart rate” for a good workout.

I think they are getting a wee bit closer, but this still seems a bit oversimplified to me. It doesn’t take into consideration any other factors like resting heart rate, fitness level, size/weight, altitude (yes, it matters!), etc. My resting heart rate is quite low, usually in the 50’s, and my heart rate recovers very quickly. If I manage to get it up around 150, it is down to 110 to 120 within 1 minute, and 100 or lower within 2 minutes. For me to maintain a heart rate over 140 during a workout is very difficult.

And such is my journey with Insanity. In this program the intervals often have my heart rate up over 150 for several minutes (during the 30 second breaks it usually goes down quite a bit). In an optimal workout, one should feel tired, but good afterward. You’ve all heard of runner’s high right? A good workout typically leaves me feeling a bit of energy. Insanity does not. It is the first time (aside from long tournaments or big hikes) that I have ever just wanted to plop down on the couch after a workout. And these aren’t super-long or particularly challenging workouts – just high cardio for prolonged periods.

To me, this says I am working out for too long of stretches at a heart rate that is too high. It seems some of the scientists agree with me:

“But many researchers say it is ridiculous to base exercise goals on a person’s age rather than individual fitness level.

Dr. Church says that except for elite athletes heart rate monitoring is not very useful and can distract from finding an exercise program you enjoy and will stick to. “Everyone kind of has their own natural pace,” Dr. Church says. “If you like to work a little harder, then work harder. If you like to work less hard but a little longer, then do that. Find what works for you.”

You can read the full article here.

So what do you think? Does the new calculation offer some relief to your goals? Do you monitor your heart rate while exercising? Do you find it hard to stick with workout routines?

FYI – I am very old school. I have low blood pressure with a soft pulse, so heart rate monitors don’t work. I use the old fingers on the neck and clock watching (count for 10 seconds then multiply by 6), which seems to be pretty accurate.


Fitness Log:

Wednesday – 40-45 min Plyo / Cardio from Insanity, 2 Mile Walk.

Thursday – Recovery Day, 1.5 Mile Walk.


  • Fiona said:

    I love my heart rate monitor, it helps push me. I tend to peak at 150 (I’m 28) and stay 130 ish for most of my time.

  • Katie said:

    Oh my god, altitude totally matters! I went home (Wisconsin – pretty much sea level) from here (7000 ft) and my resting heart rate went from 55 or so here to about 45 there. And even doing plyo, I couldn’t get it above 135.

    Good timing for this too. My HR monitor went all wonky today, and I had to do Pure Cardio without it! It kept switching from 0 to 45 to 180 to 100 to…you get the idea. And that was just during the warmup. I never realized how often I look at it and how much I rely on it. Last time I did Pure Cardio, it was up to 162 at one point, so I stopped the dvd and chilled for a minute until it went down (mine recovers really quickly too, which I also think is an indicator of fitness level). I found that I was able to give my all during the second half much much more than previous times I’d done it. I think the 15 min of insane cardio is just too long.

    I know that Polar’s “own zone” thing takes resting heart rate, weight/height and even fitness level into account. My “target” rate changes if I’ve been doing a lot of really high intense cardio.

  • Kelsey @ CleanTeenKelsey said:

    Cool, thanks for the info. 🙂

  • Kirsty_girl said:

    It is interesting that they are just publishing this formula now. I learned this at university ten years ago when I was doing my kinesiology degree.

  • Secondcup said:

    Joe,Thanks for the comment, and tahkns for the complement there have been some difficult parts of the workout, but I’m determined to get through this all the way. I have never FINISHED a workout like this. I have done parts of the p90x and chalean extreme, but never finished them. So to answer your questions about P90X it is hard for me to know first hand, but I can tell you P90X is more of a muscle building program. It uses weights and pull up bars and will get you ripped. Insanity on the other hand is a very cardio heavy workout. Your lungs and heart are going to get in better shape, plus I think you may lose weight quicker with Insanity. I think that the perfect combination is use Insanity first to get your lungs and body into amazing shape and drop some weight, then follow the insanity workout up with the P90X. This will then either grow or tone (depending on the size of weights you use) your muscles and get you a screamin good body. (This is my plan ) ( oh and I’m going to blog about the P90X just like I did for Insanity So stay tuned for that.)I’ll write about the nutrition plan in an upcoming blog.