You’ve been exercising for a while now and want to get more out of your routine. Or perhaps you’re thinking of starting and concerned you have to push yourself to have any benefit. Maybe you’ve seen those bright-coloured posters in gyms screaming the words THE TRAINING ZONE as if to make you feel guilty if you don’t get in that zone.

First off, if you’re exercising regularly and enjoying it, great job! If you’re looking to start, find something you enjoy at a pace you enjoy it at, and go for it. Most of us find a comfortable intensity to work at just naturally. However, the training zone is meant to optimize your exercise sessions.

As I’ve mentioned a thousand times, the current guidelines state getting a minimum of 150 minutes per week of moderate and vigorous activity per week. Most of the time I’ve stressed the duration, but it’s important to note what is referred to as the intensity: moderate to vigorous.

physical activity examples

An example of moderate intensity is walking a mile in about 15 minutes. This pace isn’t exact, and it can differ for each person somewhat, but the idea is that it is a brisk walk. Usually that’s faster than most people’s walk. A pace of 100 steps per minute is also a moderate pace.

Vigorous activity is done at a higher intensity, getting your heart pumping and breathing faster. Jogging or running are examples of vigorous activity, or walking briskly uphill can do it as well.

The reason why intensity is important is because it emphasizes exercising in a way to improve your cardiorespiratory fitness. Now there are benefits to being active at lower levels such as improving blood pressure, blood sugar and just feeling better. But low level activity won’t likely improve your fitness level, and higher fitness levels are associate lower risk for disease and early death. That being said, going for a stroll around the park is still much faster than sitting on the couch.

There are a number of ways in which you can monitor your intensity, and the easiest one I like is the sing-talk-gasp test. The target is to exercise at a pace at which you can talk. If you can sing, you need to pick it up a bit and if you’re gasping, you need to bring it down a bit. This approximates each person’s ideal training zone but if you want a more accurate way to monitor your training zone, a heart rate monitor is the way to go (one that uses a chest strap as other monitors are often inaccurate).

heart- lifting

The heart’s a muscle, and like any muscle, when you exercise it, it adapts and gets stronger. Plus a host of other benefits happen like improved lung capacity and your arteries (the plumbing of your body) get more efficient in delivering blood to your working muscles. Think of exercise in the moderate to vigorous range as weight lifting for your heart.

The training zone typically refers to a heart rate range that corresponds to a moderate-vigorous exercise intensity. This is also known as the target heart rate.

training zone

The easiest way to calculate a target heart rate is to determine your maximum heart rate using the formula 220 minus your age, then multiply that by a percent range. It’s believed that a range of 60% to 80% of maximum heart rate is ideal for improving aerobic fitness. Lower than that range and it may not provide a high enough intensity to increase fitness. Higher than 80% starts to get you in the anaerobic range that isn’t as useful for most of us and may uncomfortable.

A more accurate method is using the heart rate reserve method, which takes into account your resting and true maximum heart rates. For this method, the person completes an exercise stress test (check out mine here) to accurately determine one’s maximal heart rate (the equation of 220 minus age can be off by 20 beats or more).

The heart rate reserve is calculated taking maximal heart rate and subtracting resting heart rate. With heart rate (HR) reserve, you then multiply that number by your desired target range (like 60% to 80%) and add to your resting heart rate as follows:

  • max HR: 200
  • resting HR: 70
  • HR reserve: 200 – 70 = 130

Target range: ((60% * 130) + 70) to ((80% * 130) + 70) = 148 to 174

The heart rate reserve method is used commonly for prescribing a target range for people with heart disease to ensure fitness levels can increase but also for safety reasons. In people who get angina (chest or upper body pain associated with stress or exercise) and/or ischemia (lack of blood flow to the heart), the training zone is set to ensure the person isn’t exercising at a heart rate that results in angina or ischemia.

Even though the suggested training zone is between 60% to 80%, we’ve found that for people starting out on their exercise plan, a training zone between 50% to 60% may be more appropriate at first. This allows people to get used to exercising while minimizing possible discomfort at a higher intensity. Over time, as your body adapts you can increase your intensity into the training zone, and as your fitness improves, you’ll also find that the amount of work needed to get into your training zone increases (this is a good sign!).

If you have any questions about exercising in your training zone, feel free to leave them in the comments.