I’ve been using a heart rate monitor during my more intense cardio activities since February 2013. Here is an account of why I’m using it, how I use it and what I think of it. It has been instrumental in getting me free of the Sisyphus myth.
Thinking back to why I decided to change how I was living my life, one very large health goal was to improve my cardiovascular health. I am missing a large chunk of one lung and I have a less than stellar heart valve. My mother’s family has a history of poor heart health, with strokes and heart attacks all too common. I like walking and we bought a stationary bike to supplement days when weather or time conspired to make walking not an option. The Spousal Unit uses the bike more than I do at present, and he gets a nice 30 minute workout in before going in to work each day.
By early 2013, I had arrived at a pretty good place. My 20% weight reduction goal was met, I had made my walking a good, regular habit, I was doing my resistance training every week, and my last set of labs were all good for blood sugar, cholesterol, and various other things. The only outstanding health concern was my vitamin D level was insufficient. I was using the Endomondo tracking app on my phone to keep track of how much a I walked and how fast. I could jog a little bit, mostly limited to crossing streets.
The one thing I didn’t really have a handle on was if my heart health had actually improved. I was also reading a lot about various pedometers (most prominently about the Fitbit line) and how they encouraged people to get up and move around. I wanted to get a new gadget to go with the phone app, but didn’t know if a pedometer or a heart rate monitor (HRM) was the way to go. Pedometers are easier to use, but notoriously inaccurate. They are also just proxies for the distance you actually walk. HRMs provide more detailed information about you, but are harder to use, give the best results when wearing a chest strap, and can be expensive. I made the decision based on already having an app on the phone to track distance (vs. steps) and that I was most interested in heart information.
I bought a Polar FT4 at a local sporting goods store. It’s a very silly bubblegum pink wrist watch looking thing with a chest strap and monitor doohickey that snaps into the strap. It’s one of Polar’s more basic models. It doesn’t upload anything to the cloud, it doesn’t sync with any other apps, it just records my heart rate. I had to go look some stuff up on line to figure out my target heart rate. The American Heart Association has a great page online with that info. I was 48 at the time, so I did the formula:
- 220 – 48 = 172 BPM max
- 172 * .85 = 146 BPM for 85% effort
- 172 * .65 = 111 BPM for 65% effort
- 172 * .50 = 86 BPM for 50% effort
So, I needed to get my heart above 80 BPM to make it work and try to stay below 146 BPM to avoid stressing it. Working the heart from 50% to 60% is really good for overall health, though it won’t make the heart a great deal stronger. 60% to 70% gives you a little more intense workout and is pushed because it “burns more calories” (rolls eyes so hard). 70% to 80% is an aerobic zone, and will start working your heart and lungs together and doing some serious strengthening of both. 80% to 90% is performance training, and will help you consume oxygen most efficiently as well as building endurance in your muscles. More than 90% is really the realm of high performance athletes and I did not want to go there.
There was also the difference between an average heart rate over the course of walking and the highs and lows that might happen during the walk. Armed with this information, I started checking out my heart rate.
I started first, mostly due to cold, wet weather, on the stationary bike. Doing my usual 20 or so MPH at a fairly low resistance level, my average was 138 BPM. That was about 80% of maximum heart rate, so right between aerobic and performance training, which seemed about right. When the weather got better, I tried it out while walking and got about the same results – in the 130s for BPM, with a little more variation up and down.
And then I went walking on a hot day, and tossed in a little extra jogging.
The BPM average for the walk, which by this time was just over 4.5 miles and had some good hill climbs/descents, was 149 with a high of 181. The average was more than 80% and the high exceeded the maximum rate for someone of my age. What was most frightening to me was that by the 4th mile, when I was climbing a long upgrade from one canyon to the next, my heart rate would not go down. The day was not just hot, but fairly humid by San Diego standards, and my body was not able to cope with the heat, the humidity and the exertion. I slowed down to a barely moving amble, trying to breathe normally and not let anxiety drive my heart rate higher. I knew I had to get home, drink water and rest, but I couldn’t move quickly. I was stuck out in the sun and the heat.
Eventually, the monitor ticked down below 170, then 160, then 150 and finally back to the 140s. After I got home, I was feeling the despair of Fat Land creeping up on me. Damn it! How can I get “healthy” if I can’t exercise? I have to pick up the pace if I’m going to burn those calories, but just doing a tiny bit more jogging, just a half a block here and there, and the HRM goes off the charts! What the hell am I supposed to do? And the dark gloom of never being good enough began to descend. Then a little voice of reason piped up:
For fuck’s sake, Ang, pull yourself together. You’re doing everything right. You’re kicking butt and taking names. To quote Beverly Crusher, if there’s nothing wrong with me, then there’s something wrong with the universe. The Fat Land universe.
I realized that I was allowing the Fat Land confusion of losing weight with being healthy cloud what I was experiencing. I had somehow replaced strengthening my heart and lungs with exercising to excess. If I continued to push myself in inappropriate ways under punishing conditions, that was going to ruin my health. Not the extra pounds on my ass. I was harming my body, not strengthening it, trying to be Superman, not Clark Kent.
That was the experience that allowed me to once and for all to step away from the treadmill of Sisyphus.
I’ve never allowed that happen to me again, either the dangerous exertion or the mental despair. That HRM is now my truth, not the scale. I know better than to push myself in hot, humid weather. I watch the monitor, checking it every quarter mile, to make sure it’s not climbing up to dangerous levels. After the scare last year, I began to closely monitor the rate after each dash across an intersection and while I was climbing up the hills. The rate would spike with sudden exertion, as was to be expected, but I made sure it also came right back down. If necessary, I would stop or slow to a crawl until it came down and then watch as I increased my pace to make sure it stayed steady. On hills, I monitored the slow increase and made sure it never went over 165 BPM.
I also began checking time. My goal was (and is) to do a standard length walk in a certain range of time, and slowly reduce the amount of time it takes to go that distance while keeping my heart rate the same or lower. That tells me my heart and lungs are working more efficiently, and that my muscles (legs, back, arms) are getting stronger, too. Something I now see is efficient spiking of my heart rate. I can jog for a little distance and the HRM will climb to 155. As I slow to a walk, down it goes and quickly, putting me back into the low 140s or high 130s within a few seconds. I now notice that if I’m walking down hill, even at a very brisk pace, my heart rate may dip down into the 120s or even a little lower. Instead of fretting that I’m not working out hard enough, I grin and give myself a pat on the ass for having such a smooth running and efficient system.
I can do a couple walks like this a week and know that I’ve just done some solid, appropriate intensity activity that makes my heart work. I also do slower and shorter jaunts to run errands and walk with the SU, knowing simply by how it feels that I’m over the 50% mark and probably pretty close to 60%, perfect for general health maintenance.
So, that’s my experience with a heart rate monitor. It can be a little cumbersome to use, so I only put it on with the intention of giving my heart and lungs a little workout. I record the results in the Endomondo web site so that I can keep track of overall trends. I prefer its accuracy to the vague estimates of a pedometer, especially as they tend to be obsessively tied to calories burned. I don’t want to get into the fitness tracker wrist bands that are becoming more prevalent these days as I see it as too much a part of Fat Land pathologies over exercise. I put my HRM on when I am trying to do something specific with my heart, and then I take it off and go about my life.
If you are interested in increasing the efficiency and strength of your heart and lungs, I think using a heart rate monitor will help you do that. It you don’t want the bother, I don’t think the lack of one will prevent you from working your heart. It’s all good. Walk and be happy.
But mostly, be happy.