How to Measure Target Heart Rate During Exercise

Why measure target heart rate during exercise?

The heart rate during exercise is an indicator of intensity, or in other words how hard you are working. As you get fitter, your heart rate should decrease for any given exercise workload. This is the basis of many of the submaximal aerobic fitness tests.

During exercise, your heart rate will depend on the intensity of exercise, your fitness level, and your maximum heart rate (which may also depend on your age). Some training programs set the intensity of exercise using heart rate guides.

Measuring heart rate during exercise

It is possible to use the manual palpation method for heart rate measurement during exercise (e.g. at the wrist), though better results can be obtained using a heart rate monitor or similar device. Due to the constant movement of the athlete during exercise, it is important that you ensure there is a good connection between the heart rate monitor and the skin. In some cases you may want to stop exercising for the time you are taking the heart rate measurement. Better results are usually found during cycling exercise due to the less body movement.

Measuring Heart Rate

Your heart rate can be taken at any spot on the body at which an artery is close to the surface and a pulse can be felt. The most common places to measure heart rate using the palpation method is at the wrist (radial artery) and the neck (carotid artery).

Other places sometimes used are the elbow (brachial artery) and the groin (femoral artery). You should always use your fingers to take a pulse, not your thumb, particularly when recording someone else’s pulse, as you can sometimes feel your own pulse through your thumb.

Manual Method

  • Radial Pulse (wrist) – place your index and middle fingers together on the opposite wrist, about 1/2 inch on the inside of the joint, in line with the index finger. Once you find a pulse, count the number of beats you feel within a one minute period.
  • Carotid Pulse (neck) – to measure your heart rate at the neck, place your first two fingers on either side of the neck until you can feel the beats. Be careful not too press to hard, then count the number of beats for a minute.

You can estimate the per minute rate by counting over 10 seconds and multiplying this figure by six, or count over 15 seconds and multiply by four, or over 30 seconds and doubling the result. There are obvious potential errors by using this shorthand method. The longer you can measure for the more accurate your result. If you have a heart rate monitor, this will usually give you an accurate reading.

Monitor Method

A heart rate monitor or ECG/EEG can be used to get a more accurate heart rate measurement. There is now also a heart rate phone App that can measure heart rate too. This is particularly important during exercise where the motion of exercise often makes it hard to get a clear measurement using the manual method. Using a heart rate monitor is also useful when you wish to record heart rate changes over short time periods, where the heart rate may be changing. Many heart rate monitors are able to record the heart rate values to be reviewed later or downloaded to a computer

Many heart rate monitors require at least a little body perspiration between the chest strap and the skin for best conduction of the signal. Make sure that there is a good connection between the chest strap and your chest, and you can add some water or other fluid to increase the conductivity too.

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