The Case For Tracking Your Heart Rate Instead Of Step Count

Your pulse can tell you a lot.

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What to know about tracking heart rate during exercise versus steps.

Nothing feels better than taking a peek at your smartwatch or phone and seeing that you officially walked 10,000 steps. It’s a noble goal to try walking that much every day — 10,000 steps equals about five miles, after all — but tracking your steps isn’t the only ticket to good health. In fact, experts say it’s just as important to track your heart rate during exercise as a way to ensure you’re getting enough cardio each week.

While walking is a great low-impact exercise and tracking those steps is an excellent way to ensure you aren’t too sedentary, heart rate tracking is different in that it focuses on the intensity of an activity, aka how hard your heart is working, explains Rob Wagener, a NASM-certified personal trainer. It’s a subtle difference, but one that counts when it comes to your overall health.

As Alex Rothstein, a coordinator and instructor at New York Institute of Technology's Exercise Science program, says, “It’s important to stay physically active throughout the day, but also to set aside time in your day, and throughout your week, to perform purposeful and meaningful [cardio] exercise in order to promote and maintain your overall fitness. Here’s what else you need to know about tracking your heart rate during exercise and why it’s just as important (if not more) than tracking your steps.

Why Is It Good To Monitor Heart Rate?

The American College of Sports Medicine recommends adults perform cardio exercise five days a week for 30 minutes at a moderate intensity, for a grand total of 150 minutes a week. Either that, or 20 minutes a day three days a week at a vigorous intensity, Rothstein says. (Think jogging for 30 minutes five times a week versus doing an intense HIIT workout for 20 minutes three times a week.) Your step count won’t tell you if you’re getting sufficient cardio exercise — you’ll need to look at your heart rate for that.

Counting your steps is helpful when it comes to making sure you’re not too sedentary, sure. But, according to Rothstein, you have to be careful not to fall into the trap of treating step counts as true cardio “exercise.” In other words, hitting 10,000 steps each day doesn’t necessarily mean you raised your heart rate up enough for the recommended 150 minutes per week for your best cardiovascular health. To know if you’re in a target heart rate zone — where you know you’re actually improving the fitness of your heart — you’ll need to turn to a heart rate monitor of some sort.

Tracking your heart rate is how you’ll know the intensity of the exercise you’re performing to ensure you’re hitting cardio goals, says Sean Klein, a certified personal trainer and founder of training app Programme. Check your heart rate while you’re jogging, playing a sport, or taking a cardio fitness class to know if you’re going hard enough.

“Tracking your heart rate will also allow you to gauge your resting heart rate,” Klein adds. Your resting heart rate is a good indication of heart health. If it’s healthy and strong, you should fall within a range of 60 to 100 heartbeats a minute while at rest.

How To Track Your Heart Rate

To track your heart rate as you exercise, you might want to get your hands on one of the many fitness wearables on the market. Megan Roup, a celebrity fitness trainer and founder of The Sculpt Society, who works with health app Paceline, recommends wearing an Apple Watch, Fitbit, or Garmin so you can easily glance at your wrist as you exercise. There are also wearable heart rate monitors that you can strap around your chest if that seems comfier to you. And you can always count your heart rate the old-fashioned way by putting your finger on a pulse point to feel how fast your heart is beating.

Reaching Your Target Heart Rate

During an exercise session, you’ll know you’re working hard based on how you feel — that sweat dripping down your forehead, the fact you’re out of breath, etc. But it’s beneficial to get that objective look at your actual heart rate. To calculate your maximum heart rate, subtract your age from 220. So if you are 30, your target maximum heart rate will be 190, Rothstein says.

The American Heart Association recommends aiming for a target heart rate of 50-70% of your maximum heart rate for moderate exercise, or 70-85% of your maximum heart rate while doing vigorous exercise. That said, go with what feels right for your body and fitness level, and don’t overdo it.

Also, keep in mind you don’t need to go hard the entire time to see benefits. “Performing intervals that bring you in and out of these heart rate zones is an effective way to complete a workout and achieve the recommended amount of time at moderate and/or vigorous levels,” Rothstein says.

TL;DR? Follow your heart (rate) to keep tabs on your fitness game.

Studies referenced:

Lee, LL. 2021. Walking for hypertension. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD008823.pub2.

Omura, JD. Walking as an Opportunity for Cardiovascular Disease Prevention. Prev Chronic Dis. doi: 10.5888/pcd16.180690.

Sullivan Bisson, A. N. 2019. Walk to a better night of sleep: testing the relationship between physical activity and sleep. Sleep health.


Alex Rothstein, coordinator, instructor at New York Institute of Technology's Exercise Science

Sean Klein, certified personal trainer and founder of training app Programme

Megan Roup, fitness trainer, founder of The Sculpt Society

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