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More Training Info > Maximum Heart Rate

"Maximum Heart Rate"

The New York Times ran an article April 24, 2001 featuring the latest research on the training zone and maximum heart rate. Green highlights are ours, to point out the most significant portions of the article. For more on how heart rate monitors might help you with your workouts, visit Heart Rate Monitors. Interested in having your own heart rate monitor? Click here.

New York Times (April 24, 2001)

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'Maximum' Heart Rate Theory Is Challenged

The formula became increasingly entrenched, used to make graphs that are posted on the walls of health clubs and in cardiology treadmill rooms, prescribed in information for heart patients and inscribed in textbooks. But some experts never believed it.

Dr. Fritz Hagerman, an exercise physiologist at Ohio University, said he had learned from more than three decades of studying world class rowers that the whole idea of a formula to predict an individual's maximum heart rate was ludicrous. Even sillier, he said, is the common notion that the heart rate is an indication of fitness.

Some people get blood to their muscles by pushing out large amounts every time their hearts contract, he said. Others accomplish the same thing by contracting their hearts at fast rates. As a result, Dr. Hagerman said, he has seen Olympic rowers in their 20's with maximum heart rates of 220. And he has seen others on the same team and with the same ability, but who get blood to their tissues by pumping hard, with maximum rates of just 160.

"The heart rate is probably the least important variable in comparing athletes," Dr. Hagerman said.

Heart rate is an indicator of heart disease, said Dr. Michael Lauer, a cardiologist and the director of clinical research in cardiology at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation. But, he added, it is not the maximum that matters: it is how quickly the heart rate falls when exercise is stopped.

An average healthy person's heart rate drops about 20 beats in a minute and the rates of athletes "nose dive by 50 beats in a minute," Dr. Lauer said.

In three recent studies, Dr. Lauer and his colleagues found that people whose rates fell less than 12 beats within a minute after they stopped exercising vigorously had a fourfold increased risk of dying in the next six years compared with those whose heart rates dropped by 13 or more beats.

Dr. Lauer pays no attention to the standard formula when he gives treadmill tests. More than 40 percent of patients, he said, can get their heart rates to more than 100 percent of their predicted maximum. "That tells you that that wasn't their maximum heart rate," Dr. Lauer said.

The danger, he said, is that when doctors use that formula to decide when to end a treadmill test, they can inadvertently mislead themselves and their patients. Some patients may be stopping too soon and others may seem to have a heart problem because they never can get to what is supposed to be their maximum rate. "Some people are being pushed and others are not," Dr. Lauer said. "In my view, that is unacceptable."

Yet, Dr. Seals said, many doctors want some sort of guide for estimating maximum heart rates for treadmill tests. And many people who want to increase their fitness crave a general formula. So Dr. Seals and his colleagues decided to take another stab at finding an equation.

In a study published in the March issue of The Journal of the American College of Cardiology, Dr. Seals and his colleagues devised a new formula: maximum heart rate equals 208 minus 0.7 times age. They used published studies involving 18,712 healthy people and data from 514 healthy people they recruited. Their formula gives much higher average maximum heart rates for older people, with the new and old heart rate curves starting to diverge at age 40.

But raising doubts about the heart rate formula is unlikely to lead people to abandon it, exercise physiologists say. What would they do without it?

"I've kind of laughed about it over the years," Dr. Haskell said. The formula, he said, "was never supposed to be an absolute guide to rule people's training." But, he said, "It's so typical of Americans to take an idea and extend it beyond what it was originally intended for."



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