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Target Heart Rate for Weight Loss: Make Workouts Work For You

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Learning how to calculate your target heart rate zone is an important piece of the weight loss puzzle. Your target heart rate zone, comprised of an upper and lower heart rate, makes both high-intensity and low-intensity workouts more efficient — no matter how long they last.

In addition to burning more fat and calories, exercising in your target heart rate zone provides insight into how your body works and what it needs for optimal results. Whether you’re looking to slim down or bulk up, here’s how to apply your target heart rate for weight loss.

Understanding Your Target Heart Rate

Target heart rate is an important metric for optimizing your workout. In addition to helping you lose weight and burn fat, exercising at your target heart rate ensures that you’re working your body in a healthy way.

Working too far below your target heart rate may mean you’re not getting enough exercise. Working too far above your maximum heart rate may mean you’re working out too much. And while exercise is usually seen as a positive thing, too much high-intensity exercise at your maximum heart rate can lead to injury and burnout. Fortunately, knowing and using your target heart rate during exercise ensures that you balance your high- and low-intensity workouts.

“Your target heart rate helps you hit the bullseye, so you can get max benefit from every step, swing, and squat,” says the American Heart Association.

Understanding your resting heart rate also provides important context into your target heart rate. To find your resting heart rate, use a fitness tracker or manually count your pulse for one minute — healthy adults should be between 60 and 100 beats per minute (bpm). Understanding how your body, breath, and pulse feel during your resting heart rate can shed light on just how much you’re working when exercising in your target heart rate zone.

How to Calculate Target and Maximum Heart Rate

To calculate your target heart rate zone, you’ll need to know your maximum heart rate — the highest rate that your cardiovascular system can function at. This can be achieved by subtracting your age from the number 220.

For example, the equation for a 40-year-old would look like this: 220 – 40 = 180. Now that you have your maximum heart rate, which in this case is 180, you can use that number to determine your heart rate zones. Here’s how to calculate your target heart rate for weight loss with examples based on the above assumption for a 40-year-old:

Lower limit
50% of your target heart rate
180 × 0.5 = 90

Upper limit
70% of your target heart rate
180 × 0.7 = 126

This person’s target heart rate for weight loss is between 90 and 120bpm. A fitness tracker can make it easier to find your target heart rate zones without the math. Plus, wearing a tracker during exercise can help you hit these targets at a consistent and sustainable rate in order to achieve the results you desire.

Losing Weight With Your Target Heart Rate

Anyone who wants to lose weight should understand how their body uses energy. Personal trainer and author Paige Waehner explains that carbohydrates and fat are the body’s main fuel for exercise.

These energy sources will be used differently depending on the type of exercise being performed. For example, high-intensity workouts like HIIT, cardio training, and jogging rely on carbs more than fat. In contrast, the body relies more on fat during low-intensity workouts like yoga, tai chi, or walking.

Calorie intake also plays an important role in losing weight, especially in fat-burning workouts. Most people understand that you need to reduce calorie intake or increase calorie burning in order to shed pounds. But how many calories should you aim to burn in order to see results?

According to Mayo Clinic, a loss of 3,500 calories equates to losing one pound. Spreading this out over time — cutting out 500 to 1,000 calories per week — can help you lose weight in a steady, healthy way.

In addition to using your target heart rate for weight loss and watching your calorie intake, factors such as fitness level, age, gender, muscle mass, and diet all play a role in a person’s ability to lose fat, says Dr. Neal Malik. He suggests mixing up your workout routine with a combination of low-intensity and high-intensity physical activity in order to reach your ideal weight loss goals.

Penn Medicine sports medicine fellow Kyle Meyer agrees that a consistent, balanced regimen is key. “In many cases, a blend of HIIT and traditional cardio might be the key to maintaining good overall health, increasing muscle strength, reducing cardiovascular risk, and sustaining cardiorespiratory fitness.”

Aerobic Heart Rate Zones

Your target heart rate for weight loss can also be used during aerobic and anaerobic exercise to improve your fitness and lose weight. The aerobic zone is when you’re using 70%-80% of your maximum heart rate, says marathon coach Wendy Bumgardner.

“In the aerobic zone, you burn 50% of your calories from fat, 50% from carbohydrates, and less than 1% from protein.”

The number of calories you burn depends both on your weight and for how long you’re working out within 70% to 80% of your maximum heart rate.

Low-Intensity Steady State (LISS)

Low-intensity steady state workouts (LISS) are a great aerobic exercise that can be balanced with higher intensity workouts. Personal trainer and fitness author Larysa DiDio says that LISS workouts involve engaging in a repetitive motion at a consistent pace. In contrast to HIIT, LISS workouts aim for a lower level of effort over a longer period of time. Walking, swimming, and jogging are all examples of activities you can maintain without taking a break.

“With LISS cardio, you keep your heart rate at a light to moderately hard level — around 60% of your maximum heart rate — so you can sustain that pace for about 45 minutes to an hour, which helps you burn fat and build endurance,” DiDio adds.

Anaerobic Heart Rate Zones

Anaerobic exercise requires even more intense effort than aerobic exercise. Exercising at 80%-90% of your maximum heart rate for a short period of time is considered anaerobic. One of the best ways to engage in anaerobic exercise is through interval training or high intensity interval training, also known as HIIT.

High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT)

HIIT has been shown to help people lose weight, improve body composition, and target the most stubborn areas of body fat. Such effects were proven in a study by the University of Lethbridge. These findings showed that young women who engaged in six weeks of spring interval training decreased body fat mass by 8.0% and reduced waist circumference by 3.5%.

HIIT combines short periods of high intensity workouts with short periods of rest. The National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM) recommends that the intense workouts should target 80% to 95% of a person’s maximum heart rate. Rests should be between 40% to 50% of your maximum heart rate.

Raising Your Heart Rate Daily

Simple lifestyle changes can also boost your heart rate in short bursts — even when you’re not working out. According to Christopher Bergland, an endurance athlete and coach, anyone can make healthy choices that help them achieve high intensity exercise throughout their day. He refers to this as HIIPA: high-intensity incidental physical activity.

“HIIPA includes activities such as taking the stairs instead of an escalator or elevator, raking leaves, shoveling snow, getting up from your desk to dance for a minute or two when a favorite song comes on the radio, etc.,” he says.

To incorporate HIIPA in a healthy way that doesn’t induce self-guilt, Bergland suggests making a deal with yourself regarding certain lifestyle habits. For example, you might decide to always take the stairs to and from your apartment building but take the elevator at work.

Target Heart Rate Zones for Weight Loss

Understanding your target heart rate zone is a helpful way to reach your weight loss goals. By providing insight into how hard your body is working — and what it’s capable of — your target heart rate zone supports a personalized approach to burning fat. While heart rate zones aren’t the only way to lose weight, knowing your upper and lower heart rate limits is an important part of maintaining a balanced and results-driven exercise program.

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