Keeping Pace with Your Heart

Last Editorial Review: 1/30/2005

Heart monitors make it easier to get an efficient workout.

WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Charlotte Grayson

As an indoor cycling instructor, Lisa Lewis knows when a student is overdoing it. The exhaustion on a student's face says it all: The rest of the evening will include a big plate of pasta and an early bedtime.

Lewis and her colleagues at Gorilla Sports in San Francisco were seeing the "big plate of pasta look" all too often. That's when they decided to hold a workshop for indoor cycling students, to teach them about heart rate training and the use of cardio monitors, the latest high-tech gizmo allowing everyone from the fitness novice to the weekend triathelete to get a better, more efficient aerobic workout.

"I think it was really enlightening," says Lewis. "People realized that maybe they didn't need to work so hard." Instead of being worn out, many indoor cyclists reported feeling energized and refreshed after the class.

Tailoring Your Workout

Fitness experts say that to maximize the benefit of a cardiovascular workout, a person should raise his or her heart rate to between 50 and 70 percent of its maximum rate. The maximum number of beats per minute is usually estimated to be 220 minus the person's age. If you work too far below that level, your heart isn't getting the challenge it needs to get stronger. But if the heart is worked too hard, the body begins burning stored calories in a way that burns less fat and relies more on energy stored in muscle tissue.

Heart rate training, then, involves keeping track of your heart rate while you exercise. Taking a pulse while huffing and puffing away is hard, but cardio monitors can change that.

Lewis hopes one day to offer indoor cycling classes especially for people equipped with monitors. That may be possible if monitors continue dropping in price. The most popular models -- which range in price from about $60 to $260 -- include a strap you wear around the rib cage while exercising. The strap transmits a radio signal to a wristwatch-like device that displays your heart rate.

As the price range suggests, cardio monitors can come with a lot of bells and whistles. The simplest model offers a continuous display of the number of beats per minute. Mid-range models calculate the time spent in the target heart rate zone, double as a stopwatch, and remind their owners after three dormant days that it's time to get moving again. High-end models can be synchronized with a personal computer, calculate maximum heart rate, and display the average heart rate for each lap.

Professional Fine-Tuning

Heart rate training is an old idea, says Mike Gostigian, an Olympic pentathlete and personal trainer in New York City. "It's the way elite athletes have always trained." Gostigian uses the monitors in his own training and with his clients. "With heart rate training, you're more in touch with what's going on in your body," he says. If cardiovascular fitness is your goal, then working without a heart rate monitor "is like driving a car without a speedometer."

Gostigian feels people need cardio monitors to keep from overdoing it. To recovery properly from exercise, he says, 90% of your workout should be at between 50% and 70% of your maximum heart rate. "Overtraining is a chronic problem," Gostigian says. "Your body has to take time to heal."

But using the monitors properly takes discipline. One of Gostigian's clients, marathoner Anne Katzenbach, had a hard time at first. "It frustrated us," Katzenbach says. "It forced us to run slower than we wanted to run, to keep our heart rate down."

But the patience paid off. After about five weeks, she was running faster but at the same heart rate. And, Katzenbach adds, "it made the training more interesting."

Originally published in 1999

Medically updated June 26, 2003.

©1996-2005 WebMD Inc. All rights reserved.

Health Solutions From Our Sponsors