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Take your pulse

An endurance or aerobic workout offers many health benefits, including more stamina, lower stress levels, strong bones, even protection against some cancers. But, unless you’re exercising at the right pace, you may not be getting all the health advantages that you should.

How do you know if you're exercising at the right level? Easy – just follow these simple tips and you’ll be an expert in no time!

What is a normal heart rate?
How can I measure my heart rate?
What is my maximum heart rate?
How fast should my heart beat when I’m exercising?
Target heart rate chart
Can I work my heart too hard?

What is a normal heart rate?
If you're an adult, your heart beats somewhere between 50 and 90 times per minute at rest, regardless of your age or sex. Athletes will have lower rates and smokers, overweight people, and people with high blood pressure often have higher heart rates.

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How can I measure my heart rate?

Use this handy calculator to find your target heart rate.

Or calculate your heart rate the old fashioned way!

First, learn how to take your pulse:

Wrist: Press the first two fingertips (index and middle) of one hand on the outer edge of your upturned wrist on the other hand, until you can feel a strong beat. Don't use your thumb to feel for your pulse, because you can often feel a pulse in your thumb, as well as your wrist.

Neck: Press your first two fingertips against the side of your neck, just below your jawbone and about halfway between your ear and your chin, until you feel a strong beat.

Once you know how to take your pulse, look at your watch and count your pulse beats for 15 seconds; then take that number and multiply by four to get your heart rate (your heart rate is the number of times your heart beats in a minute).

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What is my maximum heart rate?
Your maximum heart rate is a guideline that tells you how hard your heart can possibly beat. The rule of thumb: Subtract your age from 220 if you're a man, and from 226 if you're a woman. If you're a 35-year-old woman, for example, your maximum heart rate is about 191. This is an estimate of how fast your heart is capable of going.

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How fast should my heart beat when I’m exercising?
If you're beginning an exercise program, try to stay within your target heart-rate zone so that you get a good cardiovascular workout without overexerting yourself. The zone is usually 60 to 80% of your maximum heart rate. Use this online calculator to determine your target heart rate or calculate your zone manually by:

Multiplying your maximum heart rate x .60 for the lower end of the range.
Multiplying your maximum heart rate x .80 for the higher end of the range.

Keep to the lower end of this range for a few weeks if you're starting a new fitness routine and gradually ramp up to 70% of your maximum heart rate. Only very fit people should aim for more than 75% of their maximum heart rates while exercising.

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Target heart rate chart

Source: Active 2010

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Can I work my heart too hard?
You certainly can! Exercising at or beyond your maximum heart rate can be as bad for your health as not exercising at all. Over-exercising can put you at risk of serious injury, will decrease your exercise performance and may even slow down your metabolism, causing you to burn calories at a much slower rate – and that’s not the effect you want at all!

Remember, a heart rate calculation can only give you a rough estimate of your heart rate while exercising. If you feel that your ‘target’ heart rate is too hard or too easy for you, use the "talk test."

Talk test: If you're at the lower end of your target zone you should be able to talk easily but still feel like you're putting in some effort into your workout. At the upper end of your zone it should start to become difficult to carry on a conversation or sing a song. To double-check your progress, take a short break halfway through your workout and measure your pulse as described above.

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Learn more about healthy ways to stay fit and active by visiting our Endurance, Flexibility and Strength pages.

Do you know the warning signs of a heart attack or stroke?

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