Dear Alice,

I know that in theory my maximum heart rate is 220 less my age (26). When exercising at 85 percent capacity, my heart rate should be 165 bpm. The problem is that when I exercise at this rate, I don't feel like I'm working hard (and it's not because I'm fit — it's always been like this!). When I exercise, my heart normally goes to about 190 bpm and it will go to 202 if I run. Is this normal? Or am I harming myself by exercising at 190 - 200 bpm?


Dear Reader,

Although the maximum heart rate (MHR) method is widely used (especially in the physical fitness industry) to gauge exercise intensity, some health experts indicate that it’s not as accurate as we've come to believe. In fact, the MHR formula was never actually meant to be a tool used to guide physical exercise. For this reason, it is not necessarily a problem if you reach or exceed your MHR. The “one-size fits all” design of the MHR calculation doesn’t work for everyone. MHR varies significantly between individuals, even among those who are similar in age and fitness level. In conjunction with monitoring your heart rate, you may also want to focus on how you feel (also called “perceived exertion”) during your workouts. It’s important to note, however, that checking-in with your health care provider would be a helpful first step in figuring out if a heart rate of 202 is healthy for you, based on your own personal health history.

Here are some tips to help you maintain a healthier heat rate while being physically active:

  • Get in touch with how you physically feel while you’re exercising by using a scale termed, "rate of perceived exertion (RPE)," in which you rate how you feel during exercise. If using the RPE scale, it's recommended you assign a number from 0 to 10 to rate your exercise intensity, 0 being no exertion and 10 being most difficult. A major benefit of this system is that it’s relatively simple and does not require special equipment or devices. If you already have a heart rate monitor or enjoy counting your beats, you can use RPE along with your heart rate.
  • Try comparing your perception of exercise intensity to how hard you actually are working. This method will help you establish a new frame of reference for your physical activity intensity. As a rule of thumb, exercise shouldn’t feel easy — it should feel challenging but not so much that you feel like you couldn’t keep it up for a prolonged period of time (30-40 minutes). One quick way to check to see if you are exercising too hard is to see if you can talk for 10-20 seconds without stopping. If you can’t, you may want to consider slowing down.
  • You can also measure the intensity of your physical activity by monitoring how quickly your heart rate falls when exercise is stopped. This measurement is probably best done with a heart rate monitor. Check your heart rate while at the very end of a vigorous routine. Begin cooling down, and then check your heart rate one minute later. As a person becomes more physically active, her/his heart rate returns to resting faster than someone who less physically active. This is called heart rate variability. Recent studies have shown that people whose heart rates fell less than 12 beats per minute after vigorous exercise had four times the risk of dying in the next six years compared to those whose heart rates dropped by 13 beats or more. For those who are more physically active, heart rates will drop about 20 beats in a minute.
  • You can measure progress by improving the number of beats your heart rate decreases in one minute. Tracking this can help you chart the effectiveness of your aerobic training and overall physical activity over time.

If you are a student at Columbia, make sure to check out CU Move, an initiative that offers the University community various opportunities to learn about and engage in physical activities that support healthy living.  If you are planning on a rigorous physical activity regiment, it is always recommended that you speak with a healthcare provider. In addition to determining your health and fitness, s/he can provide you with more detailed information about developing a safer and more effective exercise program for your specific needs. Columbia students on the Morningside campus can make an appointment with Medical Services using Open Communicator. You may also want to consider an on-campus personal trainer at Dodge Fitness Center. Columbia students at the Medical Center can make an appointment with Student Health or the Center for Student Wellness.

Keep up the good work!


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