Most of us grew up in the days before gym teachers talked about resting heart rates and target heart rates. When coaches at school wanted us to work harder, they would just yell, “Hustle!” When we overdid it, we would flop down onto the ground for a few minutes until we felt better.

But now that we’re older, the whole heart rate business is not something we can ignore. Recent research reveals the reasons…

  • A study of 50,088 adults found that for women under age 70, every increase of 10 beats per minute (bpm) in resting heart rate (number of heartbeats per minute while at rest) boosted the risk of dying from a heart attack by 18%. (No such association was found among women 70 or older.)
  • In a study of 129,135 postmenopausal women, those whose resting heart rate was above 76 bpm were 26% more likely to have or to die from a heart attack than those whose resting heart rate was below 63 bpm.
  • A strong heart pumps blood more efficiently, so it doesn’t need to beat as fast. Regular aerobic exercise can lower your resting heart rate — but only if you work out at the right intensity. According to Wayne Westcott, PhD, a Quincy College exercise science instructor, if you go too easy during workouts, you miss out on cardiovascular benefits… but if you push too hard, you might experience light-headedness, nausea and a higher-than-normal rise in blood pressure that could dangerously overwork your heart if you have hypertension. Here’s how to gauge the right workout intensity for you…

    Find out your current resting heart rate. First thing when you wake up, take your pulse at your wrist or neck for one minute.

    What resting heart rate suggests about fitness level for women in midlife and beyond…

    Excellent Below 60 bpm
    Very good 60 to 65 bpm
    Good 66 to 70 bpm
    Average 71 to 75 bpm
    Worse than average Above 75 bpm

     

    Plan to do a cardio workout at least three times per week. Good options include brisk walking, running, dancing, cycling and swimming, Dr. Westcott said. (Get your doctor’s OK before beginning or intensifying any exercise regimen.)

    Determine your target heart rate. Your ideal heart rate while exercising depends on two factors — your age and current fitness level. Dr. Westcott explained that the problem with the target heart rate charts often seen online or at gyms is that they generally are based only on age, not on fitness level, so you could wind up working out too hard or not hard enough. And though one target heart rate formula (called the Karvonen method) does account for resting heart rate, it requires more complicated calculations and, in Dr. Westcott’s opinion, yields guidelines that may be too high. Better: Follow the guidelines in the charts below. To track heart rate during your workout, use a heart rate monitor (about $100 at sporting-goods stores). Remember: Your warm-up and cool-down do not count as time in your target range.

    If your resting heart rate currently is above 70 bpm…

    In your… Your target heart rate is… Your cardio workout should last…
    40s 120 to 130 bpm 15 to 20 minutes
    50s 110 to 120 bpm 15 to 20 minutes
    60s 105 to 115 bpm 15 to 20 minutes
    70s 95 to 105 bpm 15 to 20 minutes
    80s 80 to 90 bpm 15 to 20 minutes

     

    If your resting heart rate is 60 to 70 bpm…

    In your… Your target heart rate is… Your cardio workout should last…
    40s 130 to 140 bpm 20 to 25 minutes
    50s 120 to 130 bpm 20 to 25 minutes
    60s 115 to 125 bpm 20 to 25 minutes
    70s 105 to 115 bpm 20 to 25 minutes
    80s 90 to 100 bpm 20 to 25 minutes

     

    If your resting heart rate is below 60 bpm…

    In your… Your target heart rate is… Your cardio workout should last…
    40s 135 to 145 bpm 25 to 30 minutes
    50s 125 to 135 bpm 25 to 30 minutes
    60s 120 to 130 bpm 25 to 30 minutes
    70s 110 to 120 bpm 25 to 30 minutes
    80s 95 to 105 bpm 25 to 30 minutes

     

    Adjust your workout intensity as needed. Check your resting heart rate monthly — as it improves, intensify your workouts according to the guidelines above. For safety: Reduce workout intensity and/or duration if you feel exhausted rather than invigorated after exercising… your muscles feel sore for more than a day after working out… you are recovering from an illness… you feel stressed… or the pollen count or air pollution index is high.