How to train using heart-rate zones

Most smartwatches and fitness trackers keep track of your heart rate and count your activity when you’re working in a specific “heart-rate zone.” But what does that mean, and how are the zones determined? That answer ties back to the recommendation that Americans aim to perform 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity (PA) every week.

Activity intensity

The Physical Activity guidelines define “moderate-intensity” PA as being 3.0–5.99 Metabolic Equivalents of Tasks (MET), and “vigorous-intensity” as at least 6.0 METs. For reference, 1 MET is the amount of energy you burn sitting in a chair (resting). Some exercise machines can calculate METs, but that doesn’t help you if you’re out on a track or using anything less than a high-end machine.

Intensity levels can be roughly translated to a percentage of your maximum heart rate (max HR), which you can easily calculate by subtracting your age from 220. The exact percentages can vary based on the source you look up, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) lists moderate-intensity as 64–76% of your max HR, and vigorous-intensity as 77–93% of your max HR. For example, for a 25-year-old (max HR = 220 – 25 = 195) to perform moderate-intensity activity, their HR should be between 125–148 beats per minute (BPM). If you work or exercise within the ranges, you can estimate that you’re working at a moderate- or vigorous-intensity level.


Max HR = 220 – Age


Heart-rate zones

Smartwatches and activity trackers that use “heart-rate zones” to track intensity usually follow ranges that are close to CDC’s defined intensity levels. If your tracker uses a 5-zone range, zones 2–3 are usually in the moderate-intensity window, and zone 4 usually corresponds to vigorous intensity. Check your device’s settings to see how it defines each zone, and you can usually edit the ranges if you don’t like how it matches up with the guidelines.

Tracking your heart rate zone while you exercise is an easy way to make sure you’re working hard enough to see the physical benefits. Rather than remembering “I need to be between 125–148 BPM” every time you look at your HR monitor, you can just look to see “am I in zone 3” and either work harder or scale it back as necessary.

You can calculate your maximum heart rate by subtracting your age from 220. Intensity levels for physical activity can be roughly translated to a percentage of your max heart rate. Resting heart rate is 60 beats per minute. Light intensity is less than 64% of your max heart rate. Moderate intensity is 64–76% of your max heart rate, and vigorous-intensity is 77–93% of your max heart rate. For a 25-year-old with a maximum heart rate of 195 to perform moderate-intensity activity, their heart rate should be about 146 beats per minute (BPM).

The fat-burning zone

The “fat-burning zone” is an old myth that you need to maintain your HR in a specific zone, similar to the HR zones discussed above, but in the fat-burning zone is where your body will use the most amount of fat for energy. This is a bit of a misrepresentation of how your body works. Your body uses two main macronutrients for energy: carbohydrates and fats. At any given time, your body uses both for energy, but the proportion of fat to carbs will vary. In general, when you’re performing lower-intensity workouts for longer durations, your body will prioritize using fat over carbs because it contains more energy per gram of fat than carbs do. During shorter duration, high-intensity exercise, your body prioritizes burning carbs because they’re a “faster acting” source of energy. However, this doesn’t mean you’re burning more fat with low-intensity exercise than high-intensity exercise. If you exercise for 30 minutes at low-intensity one day, and 30 minutes at high-intensity the next, you’ll actually burn more fat calories on the high-intensity day because you’re burning a greater total number of calories.

So, how do you “burn more fat”? The short answer is: exercise more. There’s no one best way to burn fat, but rather a combination of ways that will work best for you. If you prefer the more long-slow-distance-type training, that will work well because your body will prioritize using fat for energy for a longer duration. If you prefer the shorter, high-intensity workouts a few times a week, that will also work because you’re burning a lot of calories in a short period of time. Resistance training to build muscle will also help burn fat. Even though you mostly use carbs for energy during resistance training, building muscle will increase your resting metabolic rate. Muscles are hungry, so that means you’ll burn more calories just doing your normal day-to-day activities.


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References

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American Heart Association. (2015). Target heart rates chart. Retrieved January 4, 2021 from https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/fitness/fitness-basics/target-heart-rates

Carey, D. G. (2009). Quantifying differences in the “fat burning” zone and the aerobic zone: Implications for training. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 23(7), 2090–2095. doi:10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181bac5c5

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2020). Target heart rate and estimated maximum heart rate. Retrieved January 4, 2021 from https://www.cdc.gov/physicalactivity/basics/measuring/heartrate.htm

Coyle, E. F. (1995). Substrate utilization during exercise in active people. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 61(4), 968S–979S. doi:10.1093/ajcn/61.4.968S

Hetlelid, K. J., Plews, D. J., Herold, E., Laursen, P. B., & Seiler, S. (2015). Rethinking the role of fat oxidation: Substrate utilisation during high-intensity interval training in well-trained and recreationally trained runners. BMJ Open Sport & Exercise Medicine, 1(1). doi:10.1136/bmjsem-2015-000047

Piercy, K. L., Troiano, R. P., Ballard, R. M., Carlson, S. A., Fulton, J. E., Galuska, D. A., . . . Olson, R. D. (2018). The physical activity guidelines for Americans. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 320(19). doi:10.1001/jama.2018.14854