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What is Maximum Heart Rate?

Tricia Christensen
Updated Feb 13, 2024
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In one sense the maximum heart rate could be defined as the number of times a heart can safely beat in one minute. This is variable and beside the point since most people would determine this rate in a different way. Instead, maximum heart rate and target heart rate are often used synonymously. They mean the highest rate at which a heart should beat in a minute when people are engaged in exercise. Additionally, people are told to exercise at a percentage of the maximum rate instead of at a maximum rate.

There are a variety of formulas that help to determine maximum heart rate, and there is significant dispute on which formula is most correct. Less in contention is the idea that people who have not exercised recently, particularly if they’re at a certain age, should get doctor’s advice before beginning an exercise plan. This typically applies to most people 40 or older, to those who have any other medical conditions, and to anyone who is severely overweight and/or has a family history of heart problems.

Nevertheless, the basic formula that could be used to derive maximum heart rate is age multiplied by 0.685 and subtracted from 205.8. There are variations on this including age times 0.75 subtracted from 220. Doctors may more precisely measure suggested maximum heart by having people undergo cardiac tests like a stress echo, stress test or exercise test.

While maximum heart rate and target heart rate are sometimes used interchangeably, there are some important differences to observe. First, people are rarely supposed to be exercising at their maximum. It is not a target at which to aim, instead people should usually exercise at a percentage of their maximum rate, and in beginning workouts this might not be that much higher than a normal resting heart rate. The goal is to gradually work up, but to stay below maximum until otherwise advised.

Another thing to point out is that these figures may vary by the day. The very simple formulas aren’t specific enough. As much as people may pay attention to heart rate, it’s important to listen to a body’s cues in other ways. The day a person has a cold and exercises, lower than maximum percentage is probably adequate. Feeling out of breath, dizzy or sick to the stomach are probably the body’s suggestion that too much work is being performed. No matter what the heart says, the body’s language is also valuable to interpret so that enough exercise is achieved without overdoing it.

WiseGEEK is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen , Writer
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseGEEK contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.

Discussion Comments

By anon950861 — On May 13, 2014

Yeah, at optimum heart rate, you can't burn fat. About 60-70 percent is the best for burning fat.

By burcidi — On Jul 31, 2013

I don't think athletes use these formulas to calculate their maximum heart rate. Maximum heart rate is the highest heart beat per minute when someone is at a maximum physical exertion. Athletes usually run for a long time to get their maximum heart rate.

By bear78 — On Jul 30, 2013

@ddljohn-- That sounds right. I was also told to keep my heart rate around 150 beats per minute to lose weight. I guess the formulas work.

The only issue is that the formulas don't count for other factors like health issues or weight. Two people can be the same age but can have different maximum heart rates because of their general health. Someone who is obese and who never exercises is going to have a much lower maximum heart rate than someone who is normal weight and who exercises regularly. It gets even more complicated if there are health issues such as high blood pressure.

So it's always a good idea to speak to a doctor and maybe a professional trainer to find out what the safest heart rate is for exercise.

By ddljohn — On Jul 30, 2013

I read that for optimum fat burning, our heart rate should be at 80% of our maximum heart rate during exercise. I just followed the first formula in the article and my maximum heart rate calculation is 187 (I'm 27 years old).

According to this, my optimum fat burning heart rate is 149. Does this sound right?

Tricia Christensen

Tricia Christensen


With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseGEEK contributor, Tricia...
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