A heart monitor gives real-time feedback.
Serious about exercise? Get a heart monitor.
Maximize your workout by keeping your heart rate “in the zone.”
Most people with heart disease need encouragement to get just the minimum amount of exercise necessary for health. That’s why most articles on heart disease and exercise focus on the small ways to add just a little more exercise to one’s lifestyle. This is not one of those articles.
A lot of people with heart disease are otherwise fit and have been cleared by their doctors for vigorous exercise. If you’re one of these people, you’ve probably already made exercise part of your daily routine. Even so, you may not be getting the maximum benefit from your effort, says Dr. Aaron L. Baggish, assistant professor of medicine at Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital. That also holds true for a number of people who don’t have heart disease.
“The bottom line is that anyone who exercises routinely, with an emphasis on how hard they work out, will benefit from using a heart rate monitor,” says Dr. Baggish, who runs a program for athletes with heart problems. “Yes, this includes some young folks, but also a lot of 40-, 50-, 60-, and 70-something people who want to balance being athletic and having heart disease.”
Maximize exercise benefit
Eighty percent of the people with heart disease in Dr. Baggish’s exercise program use heart monitors. The emphasis is on real-time feedback that lets you reach and maintain a target heart rate—getting “in the zone.”
Why not just gauge how hard you’re working out by how hard you are breathing or by how much you sweat?
“When we exercise without feedback, we have no idea how hard we are working,” Dr. Baggish says. “You would be surprised by how many people push harder than they have to, and by how many don’t get close to the right zone but think they are doing hard work.”
When measured by a heart monitor, the zone is not a vague feeling but a measurable number. “Heart rate zones can be based on a number of things. Usually it is 60% or 70% of your peak heart rate—the heart rate at 100% of volitional effort,” Dr. Baggish says.
You can guess at your peak heart rate by crude math: the rule of thumb is 220 minus your age. But that is often inaccurate. And it doesn’t work if you are taking a beta blocker. The only real way to do it is via a stress test administered by a health professional. Getting it done this way is also the best way to find out whether you are, indeed, in good enough condition to undertake strenuous exercise. And your doctor can help you tailor an exercise plan that meets your individual needs.
Once you have determined your peak heart rate, multiply that number by 60% to get the low end of your zone, and by 70% to get the high end. Once you’ve warmed up, use your heart monitor to stay in the zone during your workout.
Heart rate devices
There are many fitness devices on the market. “Lots of them are fun to use, but none improves quality of life as much as a heart rate monitor,” Dr. Baggish says.
Some monitors strap around the chest; others, around the wrist or arm. Those that use the chest strap are more accurate. Most connect wirelessly to a wristwatch with a clear display.
“Most of these devices also record the workout and can download to a computer, smartphone app, or Web page so you can see your progress, set goals, and quantify your exercise,” Dr. Baggish says. “These are pretty nifty tools if used correctly.”
Two words of warning: Don’t ignore the advice that your doctor should clear you for vigorous exercise. And don’t let any device, even a heart monitor, keep you from exercising.
“If it gets in the way of exercise—some people say they hate wearing it—then a heart monitor isn’t a good idea,” says Dr. Baggish. “Everyone should exercise.”