Getting a Heart-Healthy Workout Is All About Finding Your Magic BPM Number, According to a Cardiologist

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It's nearing the end of spin class, and you're pedaling so hard that you're gasping for breath, barely able to keep up with how fast your legs are circling beneath you. Feeling the pounding in your chest, you think, This must be great for my heart, though, right?

Not so fast.

When it comes to getting heart-healthy exercise, Sidney Glasofer, MD, FACC, a board-certified cardiologist with the New Jersey-based Atlantic Medical Group, says it’s all about sustaining a moderate BPM, or beats per minute. His recommendation: Reach a sweet spot of around 50 to 70 percent of your max heart rate through medium intensity exercise for 30 to 45 minutes three to five times a week.

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“In general, when people are looking to do a workout with heart health in mind, it all depends on the exercise intensity they want to get to,” he says. “For most of my patients, I tend to lean toward more of a moderate intensity that they can sustain.”

Aerobic activity is one of the best ways to strengthen your heart muscles. According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, the benefits extend beyond physical fitness and heart strength to keeping your blood pressure controlled, improving your circulation, and reducing the risk of type 2 diabetes.

To find that magic number of 70 percent of your maximum heart rate, Dr. Glasofer says to take the number 220, and subtract your age. For a 30-year-old, the general maximum heart rate would be around 190 BPM, and 70 percent would be somewhere around 133 BPM. But know that this calculation is simply a guide—the actual number will vary depending on your personal physiology.

“There are always certain caveats,” Dr. Glasofer says. “Like if you are on certain blood pressure medications or recovering from a heart attack. The max predicted heart rate is a guide, and people can vary from 15 to 20 percent.” Consult your doctor if you have questions.

While doing more vigorous exercise can elevate your BPM to 70 to 85 percent of your maximum heart rate, when it comes to a workout that focuses on strengthening the heart, Dr. Glasofer says he leans toward endurance. “I would rather you be able to sustain exercise in that moderate heart rate range.” Opt for a cardio-focused workout that allows your heart rate to stay elevated and is also enjoyable. Try a brisk power walk with a friend, take a Zumba class, or hit the bike either outside or—with moderate intensity—at your favorite spin class.

For even greater heart health benefits, work toward adding spurts of more intense exercise into your workout—but always make sure to listen to your body. A study published in the journal Circulation found that adding just 12 minutes of vigorous exercise activated more than 80 percent of the body's metabolites, which are linked to overall cardiovascular health.

How can you tell when you're in the right zone? The latest fitness technology is the simplest way to monitor your BPM. Upgrade your gear with a fitness tracker like an Apple Watch, Garmin, or FitBit.

But don't get so caught up with the numbers on your wrist that you don't check in with the rest of your body. “I never want people to exercise only for their heart rate and not pay attention to what they are feeling,” Dr. Glasofer says. “Make sure and be guided by how you feel.”

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