Why does age make a difference when calculating heart rate?

Lower heart rates as we age are one of certain “assumptions” that are built into some of the most popular formulas for establishing heart rate ranges and exercise heart rate zones. These formulas have become pervasively over-utilized because they are one of the easiest ways to give people an estimate of what heart rate to expect when exercising in their “heart rate zone.”

The training zones themselves exist to give people a best estimate of what energy system they are using when exercising at different intensities. Most folks just follow the “Heart Rate Zone” training chart posted on a wall at their club, or the same chart on the front panel of their favorite exercise machine. However, these charts are flawed for several important reasons:

The “Heart Zone” chart is based on an assumption about your maximum heart rate–an estimation of 220 minus your age in years. These equations have been proven to be inaccurate on an individual basis.

It suggests that your body burns more fat at a “zone” of 40% – 60% of an already inaccurate estimation of your maximum heart rate, regardless of who you are and your current conditioning level. It also implies that individuals can be stratified in ten-year brackets, and that everyone in a given age group should exercise at the same heart rate intensity. If this were the case, a weight loss client in his 30s would train at the same heart rate as an endurance athlete!

Finally, the charts suggest that, in each decade of our lives, we need to lower our heart rate regardless of our conditioning. This has been shown to be false, since where our bodies are efficient at using fat is built upon our current cardiovascular conditioning which definitely can improve with age.

Heart rate formulas and equations might provide a sufficient range for a beginner to establish a heart rate training base. However, one of the best ways to find your personal heart rate zones and what exercise intensities are right for you is to have a metabolic assessment profile assessment. There are a growing number of facilities that offers this kind of testing. After you are tested, you will know at what heart rate you are most efficient at burning fat and, more importantly, how to change it by utilizing a program that will have you training in your personalized heart rate zones. To find out where you can be tested in your area, you can go to the following consumer web site:    

Many factors can make a difference in an individual’s heart rate such as age, weight, height, medications, and level of conditioning. To find a person's maximum heart rate, the universal formula used is 220-age. This formula is derived from the assumption that an average person is born with a heart rate of 220 beats per minute. This rate will decrease one beat per minute every year. Using these assumptions, a 50 year old individual will have an estimated maximum heart rate of 170 beats per minute. Keep in mind that maximum heart rate calculations are only estimates and can vary between individuals of the same age. Medications can also play a role in heart rate. If you are taking any medication, consult with your doctor before beginning an exercise program.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.