You know that feeling of a heart-pumping workout. But how fast, exactly, should your heart rate be? And is it always beneficial to have your heart rate high during exercise? 

Your heart rate is a measure of how hard your body is working, and during exercise, your heart rate increases to meet the demands of your muscles. How much your heart rate increases depends on the intensity of your exercise and your overall state of health.

A higher heart rate during exercise can lead to greater fitness, metabolic efficiency, and cardiovascular health. But it’s just one piece of the puzzle.

Lower-intensity exercise — like yoga, Pilates, and walking — may not increase your heart rate as high as other workouts, but can still deliver a number of important benefits for your health. Wearing a health tracker like Oura Ring can help you measure your heart rate during different types of exercise to see how your body is responding to varying levels of activity.

LEARN MORE: All About Your Resting Heart Rate

What Should My Heart Rate Be While Working Out?

When you exercise, your body’s demand for energy and oxygen increases to support your working muscles. To meet this demand, your heart has to pump more blood to the muscles so they are sufficiently oxygenated. This causes an increase in your heart rate.

Your heart rate can increase substantially depending on the type of exercise you’re doing. There are many ways to categorize the different heart rate zones, but generally, they are based on how close you are to your maximum heart rate (MHR).

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How to calculate maximum heart rate (MHR)

Your MHR is the highest number of times your heart can beat per minute during physical activity, and is highly correlated with your age.

The most accurate way to calculate your MHR is by doing a stress test. A stress test uses an electrocardiogram (ECG) to monitor your heart rate while you walk on a treadmill or cycle on a stationary bike. The medical professional overseeing this will have you increase the intensity until you reach your maximum output.

Most people don’t have access to this level of testing, so a simple alternative way to calculate yours is by using a formula: subtracting your age from 220. For example, for a 50-year-old, it would be 220 minus 50, so 170 beats per minute is their MHR.

You can also track your heart rate while exercising on your Oura Ring. This feature allows you to see how quickly your heart rate changes during different types of workouts. Seeing how quickly your heart rate elevates can show you how hard your body is working. Tracking the deceleration of your heart rate can show how efficiently your body can come back to baseline, an indicator of cardiorespiratory fitness.

READ MORE: Oura Introduces New Workout Heart Rate Feature

Understanding Heart Rate Zones

According to the American College of Sports Medicine, here’s how the intensity of exercise relates to your MHR.

Low-intensity exercise: Up to 64% of your MHR.
Moderate-intensity exercise: Between 64% and 76% of your MHR.
High-intensity exercise: Between 77% and 93% of your MHR.

Here’s an example of the heart rate zones and the types of exercise they correspond to.

Heart Rate Zone Percentage of Max Heart Rate (MHR) How You Might Feel Type of Exercise
Zone 1 50-60% Comfortable, easy, can maintain a conversation without effort Warming up, cooling down, walking, stretching, slow flow yoga
Zone 2 60-70% Feels sustainable, can maintain a conversation A light jog, brisk walking, moderate cycling, hiking, Vinyasa yoga
Zone 3 70-80% Challenging, labored breathing and conversation become difficult Running, spin, circuit training
Zone 4 80-90% Hard to maintain for long, feeling fatigued in between rounds, unable to conversate during  Fast running, heavy weightlifting
Zone 5 90-100% Maximum effort, can only maintain output for brief periods Sprinting, powerlifting, high-intensity interval training (HIIT)

Do You Need a High Heart Rate While Exercising? 

Having a high heart rate isn’t a requirement for an effective workout. However, research points to clear advantages to getting your heart rate up during a workout: 

Potential advantages of high-intensity exercise

Potential drawbacks of high-intensity exercise

For some people, having an elevated heart rate can be a health risk. For example, if you have a history of heart disease, high blood pressure, arrhythmias, anginas, or are pregnant or elderly, you should always consult your doctor before performing high-intensity exercise.

Too much high-intensity (and thus, high heart rate) activity can increase your risk of atrial fibrillation, a risk factor for stroke. A study found that participants who exercised intensely for more than five hours per week were 19% more likely to develop atrial fibrillation by 60, compared to those who did it once per week.

Member Story: Dave K., an avid CrossFitter, saw an abnormally high spike in his resting heart rate. This prompted a doctor’s visit, who diagnosed him with atrial flutter. He was advised to switch to lighter-intensity exercise until he recovered.

READ MORE: Oura Helped Me Realize I Was Having An AFib Episode

The bottom line 

While you don’t always need to see a high heart rate during exercise to get healthier and fitter, a workout routine that combines high heart rate activities (>80% of MHR) with lower heart rate activities (<70% of MHR) leads to the best health and performance outcomes. 

In fact, during lower-intensity exercise, your heart rate may not be substantially elevated but it still has an array of health benefits that make it a vital component of your fitness routine. Lower-intensity exercise improves heart health, is suitable and safe for all, and can help combat stress without needing to put your body under strain. 

Using Oura to Find Your Ideal Workout Heart Rate

Ultimately, remember that each person has different movement goals and capabilities. Oura provides an array of useful insights so you know how your body is doing — from your sleep quality to your resting heart rate, and you can use this information to inform your exercise choices. On days you’ve slept poorly, lower-intensity exercise can help your body recover. When you’ve received a good Readiness Score, it’s a good opportunity to push yourself and get in that heart-pumping workout. 

READ MORE: How Sleep Helps Muscle Recovery and Growth