Target Heart Rate and Cardio Guidelines: What You Need to Know!

What is Target Heart Rate?

I often get asked, what is target heart rate and how do I know how hard I should be exercising?

Let’s start with a target heart rate. Target heart rate is the amount of times your heart should beat during cardiovascular exercise. To determine this we need to understand a few things. First, we need to find out what our maximum heart rate is. While it can vary, the general guideline to finding maximum heart rate is to take 220 and subtract our age. That gives us an estimate of our maximum heart rate. Realize that the average fluctuation is + or – 12 beats. If interested, a VO2 max test can provide you with a more accurate measurement of maximum heart rate.


So now that we know how to estimate, let’s use a 50 year old for illustration purposes. We would take 220-50, that means the max heart rate estimate is 170. So if your max heart rate is say, 170 for a 50 year old, you want to exercise at a percentage of that. If the goal is general conditioning, a typical heart rate would be 70-85% of maximum heart rate. In the case of the 50 year it would look like this:

220 – 50 = 170
170 x .7 = 119
170 x .85 = 144.5

In this illustration 119 – 144 would be an acceptable target heart rate range.

However, if you want to maximize your cardiovascular fitness, then some of the time you should be between 90 and 95% (or sometimes even a little bit higher). So for in this illustration sometimes you would want to get the heart rate closer to this:

220 – 50 = 170
170 x .9 = 152
170 x .95 = 161.5

So at times it would be beneficial to get the heart rate between 152 and 161.

Benefits of Target Heart Rate

When you come close to your maximum heart rate is where the greatest improvements are made (however you need to be healthy and accustomed to exercise to go this high). Even if your goals are to maximize improvements only part of your exercise time should be in this zone. This partly depends on the amount of time you have to exercise. For example if you have 150+ minutes a week to dedicate to exercise most should be in the moderate intensity zone (general conditioning). If you only have close to 75 minutes per week to exercise most should be in the higher intensity zone to maximize performance.

Other Measurements

In addition to heart rate, we want to look at what’s called RPE rating of perceived exertion, and also the talk test method. RPE is a scale of one to 10. If you’re interested in general conditioning you should exercise around 3 – 5 (5 is somewhat hard). If your goal is maximizing cardiovascular endurance some of your time should be around an 8 (hard/very hard).

Besides RPE another measurement is the talk test. For general conditioning you should be able to carry on a conversation but not sing a song during exercise. If you’re interested in maximizing improvements, some of your exercise time is where you can’t carry on a conversation (or even want to) and you should only be able to get our a couple words before having to take a breath.

Get Your Cardio On!

Bottom line it is important to follow guidelines with cardiovascular exercise. Some people like more objective measurements like heart rate while others like the more subjective measurements of RPE. Either way, find something that works for you and use it to guide your cardiovascular intensity.

For more information on any of these subjects check out our Freedom 4 Life Fitness YouTube channel.

Glen and Yvette Carrigan - Personal Trainer Leawood, KS

Glen Carrigan
Freedom 4 Life Fitness