Your Exercise Heart Rate (Part 1): How to Feel Your Rate of Exertion

endurance-exercise-female-40751This is the first of three posts about exercise heart rate.

Heart rate is one of the key indicators measured in almost every health-related situation.  It is one of the first vital signs examined by emergency personnel.  It follows right behind airway and breathing.

In that same sense, heart rate is vital to exercise.  It is the key indicator of exertion in every exercise program.  Next up is a brief overview of two types of exercise and how heart rate plays an important role.  And, how important it is for you to be aware of your heart rate.  There are various ways for you to monitor this.  You’ll learn how to do a few of these this in this series.

Learning how to feel how hard your heart is working when you’re exercising is the focus of this post.  In the next post, I’ll teach you how to take your heart rate.

What Are Zones?

Your heart rate is very important when exercising.  Zones are different ranges of beats per minute (BPM) for different types of exercise.  These are called target heart rate zones, or THR zones. For example, your BPM goals will be different for long, slow aerobic workouts vs. strength, or anaerobic, training.

Aerobic Exercise vs. Anaerobic Exercise

What do aerobic and anaerobic mean in the context of exercise?  Simply put, aerobic means “with oxygen.”  You are working your body at a rate of exertion which allows your body to produce energy to continue the activity, using oxygen as one of its fuel sources.  At this level of exertion, you can last a long time.  Think long-distance running.

Anaerobic means “without oxygen.”  You are working your body at a rate of exertion which does not allow your body to produce energy to continue the activity at that level for long.  It is working too hard to be able to use oxygen as a fuel source to create more energy.  The fuel for this type of work is limited essentially to what is already stored in your muscles.  When you run out of this fuel, you cannot go on.  Think Olympic weightlifters or sprinters.

How can you apply this information to your workouts?

Depending on your goals, you can check to see if you’re working hard enough, too hard, or not hard enough to benefit you.  Do you have to be able to take your pulse?  Not initially.  However, it is something that would benefit you in the future.  I’ll tell you how in the next post.

It is not that difficult to take your pulse.  But, there is a large number of people who do not know how to take their pulse.  And, within that number, there are those who do not want to learn and will simply get a tracker, like a Fitbit.  This is fine.  I wear one like the one in the link nearly 24/7.  I like to see my numbers.  It motivates me to do better tomorrow than I’ve done today.  But, until you learn how to take your pulse or get a tracker, I will tell you how you can learn to feel your rate of exertion.

It is a valuable skill to be able to feel how hard your body is working.  At rest, you should feel like you could say a small paragraphs-worth of sentences without having to take a breath.  (If you don’t feel this way at rest, please see a doctor.  Seriously.)

Moderate aerobic exercises, think walking or running, aiming for longer periods of time, 20+ minutes, will allow you to speak in sentences, albeit maybe short ones when you increase your intensity to vigorous aerobic exercise levels.  If you can do this, you are working within a good aerobic range.

Anaerobic exercises, heavy weight training or sprints, for example, will have you only being able to say 1 or 2 words, usually in a gasping-like manner if you’re working hard enough.  You might also be working out and lifting lighter weights and doing higher repetitions (15-20) or timing (30 seconds) your sets.  These are all examples of anaerobic exercise.  It should leave you very fatigued.  This is not the post to get into all of the variations of anaerobic exercises.  Just know that you should be breathing very hard when doing anaerobic exercises, and for a short while after you stop.


During aerobic exercise, perform a few self-checks to monitor how hard you’re working.  If you can speak a whole paragraph of sentences, you need to step it up.  If you can only gasp a word or two, slow it down.  And, if you can say a whole short sentence, not much more, before you have to breathe, you are working at just the right pace for a long-distance exercise program.

For the slightly more advanced, you may want to add some intervals for added benefits.  For example, after you warm up, go as fast as you can for about 30 seconds, then slow back down for a few minutes, or until you catch your breath.  It is a combination of aerobic and anaerobic exercise.  This is done to stress your cardiorespiratory system and make it stronger and more efficient.  You can still use the ‘feel’ method to gauge your rate of exertion.

If you want to learn more, my next post will explain how to take your pulse in two different locations, and for some of you, a third method.

Up next:

Your Exercise Heart Rate (Part 2):  How to Take Your Pulse


Thanks for reading.  As with all the exercise information on this site, please get a check-up with your doctor before you begin an exercise program.  Also, please sign up to follow  This will help me to continue to provide fitness information to everyone.  Thanks!  Karen

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