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riding a bicycle

I’ll start with the bottom line: fat loss is a complicated process. There is no guarantee that working out at a certain heart rate will lead to fat loss. I’ll explain, but first, I need to explain target heart rate…


Listen to Dr. Neal address this topic on Episode 630 of the podcast Optimal Health Daily.


Target Heart Rate

The idea behind target heart rate is to determine your exercise intensity. The faster your heart beats during exercise, the more benefits to your heart (theoretically). Supposedly this benefit peaks at a certain heart rate, which is the target heart rate. The thinking is, if you reach this target, you will get the most benefit.

What is Your Target?

There is a relatively simple way to figure out what your target heart rate should be. It’s so simple in fact, that many gyms own cardio machines that will do this math for you. You just have to enter a couple of pieces of personal information, and boom, it will tell you your target heart rate.

Calculating your target heart rate

Checking Your Heart Rate

What happens when you hit this target while you’re working out?

To know whether you hit this, you will either need to manually check your heart rate or wear some sort of heart rate monitor. Just know that each of these have their pluses and minuses.

For example, when you’re calculating your own heart rate by checking your pulse, the first beat you hear or feel isn’t counted. The second beat is actually the first one you count. Then you need to keep counting beats for at least 15 seconds. Once you have done that, multiply the number you get by 4. That will you give you your heart rate in beats per minute. If you’re not great at checking your own pulse, this will lead to some errors.

If you’re using a heart rate monitor, they must be worn properly to ensure accuracy.

I’m trying to point out that tracking heart rate may lead to some accuracy issues. If we can’t accurately track our heart rate, then we really don’t know for sure if we achieved our target.

What Type of Fuel Do Our Bodies Burn at Our Target Heart Rate?

According to the American College of Sports Medicine, when we're working at a certain percentage of our target heart rate, we are more likely to burn muscle fat. Note the keyword: muscle fat.

Muscle fat is different than body fat. But even then, working out at your target heart rate doesn’t guarantee you will burn any fat all–muscle or body.

Some of the other factors that can influence whether we burn fat during exercise can include:

  • your current level of fitness
  • your age
  • your gender
  • how much muscle you have
  • the type of exercise you’re doing
  • what you ate before your workou

And so on.

To try and predict whether you’re burning fat during your workout is a bit challenging.

Recommendation

Mix up your workout routines.

For example, there are studies that support high intensity interval training as a way to help burn fat. When performing high intensity interval training, folks are often surpassing their target heart rate. Yet it was found that these folks are still burning fat.

Then there are other studies that support lower intensity exercise as a way to burn more fat.

This is why I say that incorporating variety into your workouts is probably the best thing to do.

Incorporate low- and high-intensity cardio. Definitely add resistance training into your routine. The more muscle you carry, the more calories you burn all the time. And hopefully, some of those calories being burned are coming from fat!

Workaround For Measuring Heart Rate

Remember how I was complaining about all the problems with measuring heart rate? Here’s an easy workaround:

When you’re in the middle of your workout, are you be able to hold a conversation, or are you breathing so hard there’s no way you can imagine uttering a single word? If you’re able to hold a conversation, and you’re hoping to get closer to your target heart rate, you probably need to increase the intensity. If you’re breathing so hard that you’re just trying to avoid passing out, you can take the intensity down a notch (unless, of course, your goal is to get to that point). If you want to exercise within your target heart rate range, get to the point where you can talk but can’t hold a conversation.

That’s one of the better ways to make sure you’re hitting your target!

Listen to Dr. Neal address this topic on Episode 630 of the podcast Optimal Health Daily.

mm

Neal Malik

Dr. Neal Malik leads the Master of Science in Nutrition for Wellness program and teaches core courses at Bastyr University California. He has a Doctorate in Public Health from Loma Linda University and is a Certified Exercise Physiologist from the American College of Sports Medicine. Send in your health related question and Dr. Neal will answer it on the Optimal Health Daily show!
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