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Rhino Fitness founder Cris LaBossiere has been using heart rate monitors since 1988.

"Polar heart rate monitors have been the most reliable monitors I've used. They have the best features at the best price."

- Cris LaBossiere

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Age based heart rate formulas; Do they work?

Click here to listen to a 60 second summary of this article by Cris LaBossiere

Heart rate is one of the most important variables to pay attention to during exercise, but do heart rate charts really account for all the differences between people and peoples fitness goals? No. It's one of the biggest urban exercise myths ever. Many aerobics instructors, spin class instructors, and personal trainers point to these charts. But none of the top fitness pro's do. Find out why.

Above is an example of the typical heart rate charts found on exercise equipment, in magazines, even doctors offices. The numbers are based on population averages, but can't be accurately applied to any one individual because of differences in fitness, genetics, and health. For instance, there is no research showing that a persons heart will be more "healthy" when exercised at 50% of maximum heart rate as opposed to any other intensity.

The zones 50% to 75% will all be largely aerobic for the average exerciser, so why does only one zone get the "aerobic" label? An untrained person may become anaerobic at as little as 60% of max HR, where a fit person may need to push above 90% of their max to become predominantly anaerobic. Also, to burn fat you must be aerobic. If there are separate aerobic and fat burning zones a person who doesn't know any better might believe that being aerobic is exclusive of fat burning. These charts don't educate people, they misinform people.

The "fat burning zone" is misleading. When I ask people why they exercise in the charts fat burning zone, they look at me as though I've just asked the most stupid and redundant question possible, "to lose fat of course!". Uh hu. Good luck with that. Fat loss occurs when you burn off more calories than you eat. It has nothing to do with a "fat burning zone". That idea went out the window long ago.

It may be true that in terms of using fat as a fuel there is a "zone" where the body uses more fat compared to lower and higher intensities, (which by the way is specific to each individuals level of conditioning, and is not accurately captured by these charts), but using fat as a fuel does not translate into losing fat. If you burn off 500 calories exercising in your fat burning zone, then overeat by 500 calories on the same day, you gain fat, not lose fat. Calories in - calories out, that's what matters for fat loss.

Heart rate does provide a real time update to how your body is responding to exercise. Heart rate can help determine when you are fatigued, recovered, increasing fitness, losing fitness, exercising too hard, or too easy. A heart rate monitor is a critical piece of exercise equipment, just as critical as a pair of runners is for jogging. Once you know your target heart rate, heart rate alone isn't enough, you must compare heart rate to speed or power, and where available, blood lactate to monitor progress.

For example; if you exercise at your regular target heart rate, but are slower than usual, how are you going to interpret that comparison? What if you're faster at the same heart rate? How do you use your heart rate information to tell you how you are responding to exercise? Your heart rate has something to say to you, but if you use heart rate formulas you'll never fully understand how to benefit maximally from monitoring heart rate during exercise.

..Have a heart rate monitor? Get trained by Rhino Fitness to learn how to get the most out of your exercise! Click here for details..

Exercising at the same heart rate does not mean you are stimulating your body the same way. Did 30 minutes at 75% of your max hr yesterday? Exercising at the same heart rate today won't be the same stimulus if you're fatigued. The fixed formulas don't account for day to day fluctuations in fatigue or recovery.

The formula's:

Two common heart rate formulas

220 - age x 65% to 85%

210 - age x 65% to 85%

There is also reference also to a 55% to 80 and 85% range as the multipliers for both 220 and 210 - age, as well as 206 - age. In 2001 Hirofumi Tanaka et al suggested a new formula: 208 - 0.7 X age to estimate maximum heart rate. However Tanaka cautioned that this formula has a 10 beat margin of error. All the formulas have a 10 beat or greater margin of error.

There is another formula called the "Karvonen" formula, also referred to as "Heart Rate Reserve". This one is thought to be more precise because it considers a persons resting heart rate.

Karvonen formula (Heart Rate Reserve):

Maximum heart rate - resting heart rate = A (maximum heart rate estimate of 220 - age is used)

A x 65% and 85% = B and C respectively (B = low range, C = high range)

B and C + resting heart rate = heart rate range from low to high intensity


220 - 30 (age) = 190

190 - 60 (resting heart rate) = 130

130 x 65% = 84.5 + 60 (resting heart rate) = 144.5

130 x 85% = 110.5 + 60 (resting heart rate) = 170.5

This formula is intended for athletes. Using the Karvonen formula a 30 year old person with a resting heart rate of 60 beats per minute would have an exercise heart rate range of 144 to 170 beats per minute. That is a large range with tremendous variability in intensity.

The formulas are really supposed to use a persons true maximum heart rate multiplied by 55% to 85%. However the physical exertion required to establish a persons maximum heart rate is, well, maximum. For well trained individuals and healthy athletes, the maximum heart rate test is very hard, but within the means of the athlete. For the non-athletic population the test for maximum heart rate is so strenuous that it is dangerous for the untrained or sedentary population, and certainly should never be done on a person with hypertension (high blood pressure) or any type of heart or lung disease. A doctors note is required to take such test.

All these formulas were created at a time when technology did not allow for portable lactate analyzers, like the Lactate Pro that Rhino Fitness and virtually all top end training facilities around the world use. There are over 15,000 Lactate Pro analyzers in use worldwide.

In the end it turned out that maximum heart rate wasn't really a good variable to use in determining individual exercise intensity because there was so much variability between persons with genetics, gender, fitness, and fatigue factors. People exercising with these heart rate "formulas" have invested in a red herring.

This chart compares the results of these heart rate formulas to reality, and to Rhino Fitness founder Cris LaBossieres' actual training and racing heart rate values:

Heart Rate Formula Estimated Target Heart Rate Zones BPM (beats per minute) For 30 Year Old Person (65% & 85% of Max Heart Rate)
Karvonen Formula (Heart Rate Reserve)
144 to 170 BPM
220 - age
123 to 161 BPM
210 - age
117 to 153 BPM
Tanaka et al 2001 208 - .7XAge
117.91 to 154.19 BPM
Anywhere from 115 to 190 BPM
Cris LaBossiere

Karvonen Formula applied to Cris; 135 to 162 BPM

220 - age formula applied to Cris; 118 to 155 BPM

Actual training and racing heart rate range of Cris; 125 to 185 BPM Click here to see a heart rate profile of Cris racing

Click here to see a heart rate profile of Cris/ easy training

Go to the Results page to see more heart rate profiles of Cris racing

Clearly each formula produces different "target heart rate zones" for the age 30 comparison used above. This same inaccurate variability applies no matter what your age is. It can be seen in Cris's real life comparison that the formulas are quite irrelevant.

"If I were to actually use heart rate formulas to determine my training values, my training would be destroyed. The same goes for anyone who exercises. There is no possible reason for any person to subject themselves to these irrelevant formulas." - Cris LaBossiere

In essence, those who actively promote heart rate formulas most likely DO NOT have experience in the critical analysis of heart rate during exercise, otherwise they would know about these obvious facts. A 5 BPM difference in heart rate can mean the difference between a sustainable pace and burning out. The formulas use estimates based on averages, based on estimates, and any fitness Professional should know this.

To try to make the heart rate chart look more attractive for athletes with high performance goals, a chart such as below is quite popular.

This popular but erroneous graph assumes a 30 year old person and the 220 - age X 65 to 85% formula broken into five "training zones":

Zone One 123 - 133 BPM Easy Aerobic Base
Zone Two 133 - 143 BPM Aerobic Endurance
Zone Three 143 - 153 BPM Aerobic Power
Zone Four 161 - 171 BPM Anaerobic Power
Zone Five 171 - 190 BPM Vo2 Max

The graph looks official and scientific, but is anything but scientific. Not one relevant measurement would be taken of an individual to produce the above graph, which is quite popular. Why "ten" beat zones? Sounds like a nice round number most likely. In fact blood lactate concentrations increase exponentially after a certain point, so if anything these "zones" should reflect this reality by being smaller at the upper limits, but they don't. Even though these "zones" seem to have further clarification, the zones themselves are still merely estimates. The formulas assume a certain blood lactate concentration or oxygen utilization to coincide with each heart rate "zone" but again this correlation changes with training and is different between individuals. These differences are not accounted for with this heart rate chart.

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We use heart rate "zones" to train, but we define the zones through continual clinically accurate testing, and should not use speculative one size fits all formulas.

Below are the results of a regularly active 45 year old male (Rhino Fitness client). It can be seen that he can burn more calories for lower lactate levels as he becomes more fit. The 220-age formula for this male gives him a lower limit of 114 and an upper limit 149 BPM. It can be clearly seen that in fact lactate values do not have a fixed relationship with heart rate. Further, the formula estimated "top end" heart rate is in fact a very easy pace now that he is fit.

Ironically heart rate formulas do not account for the known response to exercise; an increase in fitness.

45 Year Old Male, Exercises Daily; Rhino Fitness Client:

Calories Per/ hr
Heart Rate/ Lactate
February 6, 2003
120 BPM        2.8 mmol/l
February 15, 2003
122 BPM        2.3 mmol/l
March 14, 2003
126 BPM        1.7 mmol/l
July 14, 2003
128 BPM        1.9 mmol/l
January 27, 2004
150 BPM        0.8 mmol/l            

Below are the results of Bonita Cobb, 57 year old female with arthritis. The changes in lactate represent both fatigue and increased fitness. Heart rate formulas assume lactate is the same when fatigued and when more fit; clearly it is not.

57 Year Old Female, Shift From Sedentary To Active; Rhino Fitness Client:

So in fact heart rate zones calculated with an age based formula are completely useless as they don't measure what is actually happening with an individual. Let's be clear here, it is critically important to both monitor heart rate and know what your target zone is, however, heart rate formulas are a useless method of determining your target heart rate. The best ways to discover individual target heart rate is to test Blood Lactate. There are other tests such as Vo2 Max and graded exercise tests that record heart rate and speed, but sampling blood lactate is the most precise.

Missing the power punch

Missing from the heart rate formulas is a correlation with speed or power output. The runners, cyclists, and triathletes I train not only have target heart rate and lactate zones, but also speed and power zones. It takes knowledge and experience to properly interpret speed/ power, heart rate, and lactate values. If you're being trained by heart rate charts, not only is your training imprecise because of the lack of validity of the chart, but your speed/ power, and lactate are not being considered.

Sample graph from PowerTap hub and PowerAgent software:

This chart of a cycling training session shows power in watts, heart rate, cadence, speed, and torque. The data is from a special power measuring system made by PowerTap, built into the rear hub of a racing bike. The information from a bike ride can be downloaded to computer. Over time the coach looks for changes in the relationship of power, heart rate, and lactate. For many coaches analyzing this type of data has been a normal daily activity for over a decade. For the average personal trainer.. They may not even know this technology exists. Who do you think will understand adaptation to exercise better; someone who analyzes charts like this every day, or someone who doesn't even know the technology exists? If you don't have this technology, don't worry about it. What you're looking for is a trainer/ coach who understands the technology and can apply the concepts to you. The coach who knows this stuff also knows how to apply complex concepts in a simple way without technology. The ones who don't know this stuff are limited in what they can apply to you.

The vast majority of "trainers" do not actually test blood lactate, power, heart rate, or use any other test method;they rely on oversimplified formulas. Formulas are easy money. You don't have to test anyone and you can make yourself sound really smart with "special" formulas. Any increase in fitness people experience with these formulas is the natural result of continuous exercise, but all persons using these formulas fall well short of achieving maximum results. Rhino Fitness supports fitness industry peers who use legitimate methods of testing individuals to determine target heart rate. It is the position of Rhino Fitness that those who sell exercise programs using only heart rate formulas are either inexperienced, only provide low quality service, or are shysters.

When scrutinized it becomes clear these formulas are not reliable, and most importantly they don't account for fatigue, recovery, change in fitness, or gender.

At Rhino Fitness we like to say, "if you're not measuring, you must be guessing". Use a trainer that can test you with lactate sampling, heart rate profiling, or VO2 max testing. If you don't have access to lactate testing or heart rate monitors, don't let that stop you from exercising. Although far more subjective, perceived exertion is the next best thing to clinical measurements:

The following is a basic example of how "perceived exertion" is quantified. For more information on perceived exertion do an Internet search on "the Borg scale"

Light exercise Slight increase in breathing rate. Able to speak continuously with no problem

Does not feel strenuous. Can continue for at least 30 - 60 minutes with no fatigue, endurance athletes can sustain for many hours. Not much sweating

Example- Brisk walk

Moderate Exercise
Elevated breathing rate, but not huffing and puffing. Speaking can be done in somewhat broken sentences

Does not feel overly challenging, but does feel like constant work. Able to continue for 30 - 90 minutes. Endurance athletes can sustain for many hours. A light consistent sweat is normal

Example- Light jog or brisk bicycle ride

Hard Exercise Hard breathing, huffing and puffing. Speaking can only be done at one or two words at a time.

Feels very challenging. Focus required to continue. Does not feel sustainable to most people. Endurance athletes tire within one hour but can push for up two hours but not without losing speed, pro endurance athletes slightly longer. Profuse sweating is normal

Example- Fast run, fast bicycle ride

Maximal Exercise Gasping for air. Speaking not possible

Feels like you're at your absolute limit. Not sustainable for more than 5 to 60 seconds.

Example- Sprinting 100%

Perceived exertion alone relies on how you interpret how difficult exercise feels in combination with how fast you are breathing. It is a "no technology" method of monitoring exercise intensity.

Typically those new to exercise and those doing base or recovery exercise would do "light exercise" as defined above and would completely avoid hard exercise. As a person becomes more fit they will be able to tolerate and benefit from gradually introducing increased intensity as gauged by perceived exertion. One of the problems with perceived exertion is that your speed or power will drop without you knowing. Even if you're confident you are good at feeling what intensity you are at, over the course of an hour of exercise you will be going slower at the end even if you think you are going at the same pace. Accuracy from one day to the next is also unreliable. You may feel like you are exercising at the same intensity, but fatigue is making you slower. Without being able to accurately gauge fatigue and recovery, fewer workouts will be quality workouts.

If you use a heart rate monitor and perceived exertion you will be able to quantify how you feel at a given heart rate. How fatigued or recovered you feel at a given heart rate can allow you to compare your exercise sessions.

Being clinically tested to discover your personal heart rates for exercise is much more precise than perceived exertion, but perceived exertion with heart rate monitoring is more effective at determining appropriate exercise intensity than using age based heart rate formulas.

If you want the best results possible from training, drop the tired and irrelevant magazine style formula based training. Rhino Fitness will take you to the next level with real scientific training based on your personal clinically accurate measurements. WANT PROOF? SEE OUR RESULTS

Rhino Fitness coaching services

Click here to listen to a verbal summary of this article by Cris LaBossiere


Tanaka H, Monahan KD, Seals DR: Age-predicted maximal heart rate revisited. J Am Coll Cardiol 2001;37(1)153-156

Send comments on this article to info@rhinofitness.ca

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Below is a partial list of the users of the Lactate Pro. Clearly Lactate testing is used by top training facilities.

List courtesy of FACT Canada, North American distributor of the Arkray Lactate Pro LT-1710 portable blood lactate analyzer.

Canadian National Cross Country Ski Teams
Rowing Canada
Biathlon Canada
Speedskating Canada
Swimming Canada
Canadian Olympic Kayak Team
USA Swimming
USA Skiing - Downhill and Cross-Country
US Biathlon Teams
USA Speedskating
US National Canoe and Kayak Team
US Olympic Training Center, California
US Olympic Training Center, Lake Placid, New York
Adidas National Running Team (Canada)
UC Davis Medical Center - Sports Medicine
Sports Medicine Institute, Intl - California
Mt. Sinai Hospital, School of Medicine, New York
Canadian Space Agency
Canadian Forces Base, Kingston
Canadian Forces Valcartier, Biathlon
United States Air Force
US Naval Academy Aquatic Club
Pacific Sport National Sport Centre - Vancouver
Pacific Sport National Cycling Centre - Victoria
Pacific Sport National Triathlon Training Centre - home of Canada's elite triathletes such as Olympic Gold Medalist Simon Whitfield
Wall Aquatic Center at Northern Arizona University
Total Performance Institute, Colorado
Ironman Institute (www.IronmanInstitute.com)
Whittom & Boucher - Sports Performance Technologies, Quebec
Pointe-Claire Club de Canoe, Quebec
Green Mountain Valley Ski Academy, Vermont
Stratton Mountain School, Vermont
Michigan State University
University of Scranton, Pennsylvania
Hope College, Michigan
University of Miami
University of Southern Mississippi
Pepperdine University, California
Marquette University, Wisconsin
University of Vermont
Meredith College, North Carolina
Truman State University, Missouri
St. Lawrence University, New York
University of Indianapolis
University of Texas
Arizona State University
University of Quebec
University of Montreal
University of Prince Edward Island
University of New Brunswick, Aquaculture Research
Concordia University, Montreal
University of British Columbia
University of Calgary, Alberta
University of Manitoba
University of Waterloo, Ontario
Laurentian University, Ontario
Geoff Kabush, Ryder Hesjedal
- Pro Mountain Bikers (Geoff was 9th and the top North American at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Ryder was Silver Medalist at the 2003 World Championship)
Lidia Simon - Silver medal in the Women's Marathon at the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games.
Rhino Fitness Winnipeg, Manitoba

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2003-2007 Cris LaBossiere Rhino Fitness

Copyright 2004 - 2007 Rhino Fitness. All rights reserved.
For more information contact: clabossiere@rhinofitness.ca