Sometimes our users have issues with heart rate (HR) zones — different apps and fitness trackers show inconsistent data:
The left screenshot is from an app called Zones. It assigned the first 8 minutes of the workout to the “warm-up” zone and the other 37 minutes to the “fat burn” zone.
On the right, Welltory’s zones layout shows the entire workout as a warm-up, though the heart rate is the same in both apps.
We understand how frustrated and confused you might feel right now.
Keep reading to learn why these HR zones fail to match.
Why These Zones Differ
This might seem obvious, but the way heart rate zones are calculated depends on the formula a specific app or device uses.
Welltory applies the Karvonen Formula, which uses both your maximum and resting HR alongside your training intensity:
Target training HR = resting HR + (0.5 [maximum HR − resting HR]),
where 0.5 equals 50% of your functional capacity.
Polar and Garmin ignore your resting HR completely. They calculate your maximum HR as 220 − your age in years, and then just multiply the result by the target HR range value — 0.6 for 60% of your functional capacity, 0.7 for 70%, etc.
Here is Garmin’s zone calculation:
The Zones app also pays no attention to your resting HR whatsoever:
Scientists Prove We’ve Got HR Zones Right
We’ve examined some trustworthy studies and realized that the “220 − age” formula alone has nothing to do with personalized HR zones.
In a recent study published in the NCBI, researchers at the University of Illinois, Chicago tested a total of 4,796 healthy subjects and proved that the “220 − age” formula (age-predicted maximum heart rate (APMHR) below) is useless in predicting the actual response to exercise because of its inaccuracy:
And here is another research, where the authors managed to undermine the credibility of the “220 − age” formula in support of the Karvonen formula:
Thus, the “220 − your age” formula won’t get you anywhere close to the neat and accurate HR zones without your resting HR.
The authors of another study published in the International Journal of Medical Research & Health Sciences also think that your resting HR is a relevant factor when it comes to determining training zones. The researchers evaluated the relation between maximum HR and resting HR in three groups of people: non-athletes, athletes, and people with type II diabetes. They concluded that exercises affect your resting HR significantly, and ignoring it is a bad idea:
The Karvonen formula takes your resting HR on board. That’s why our results are more accurate and personalized. The authors of an article published in BC Medical Journal concluded that this formula works fine for estimating your exercise intensity:
Some athletes also get frustrated by the Polar and Garmin HR ranges.
For example, one 43-year-old female marathoner needed to build up her aerobic base.
She bought smart gadgets to track her heart rate and started the HR training. Those gadgets calculated her heart rate range for zone two as 108–125 beats per minute (bpm). Two months later, the marathoner found that she can only stay within the range if she is walking briskly or jogging at 12–13 min/mile.
This “HR training” made her suffer a lot because the HR zone was way too low for someone of her fitness level. Besides, those two painful months destroyed her previous efforts, and now she finds it hard to run faster.
Out of despair, she turned to other runners asking for help:
Moreover, the marathoner had to calculate the appropriate HR zones on her own. It turned out that the HR range for zone two is 128–139 bpm for her, which is drastically higher than those calculations provided by Polar and Garmin.
We don’t know her resting HR, but we can calculate the zones using our default value of 55 bpm.
The calculations would look as follows:
55 + (0.6 [220 − 43 − 55]) = 135 bpm and
55 + (0.7 [220 − 43 − 55]) = 140 bpm.
So, the intensity of our zone two is way higher than those 108–125 bpm calculated by Polar and Garmin. Besides, our range matches the HR Training Zone Calculator by MyProCoach.
If the marathoner had worked out with Welltory, she wouldn’t have had to calculate the zones on her own, lose all her progress, and wonder what had gone wrong. We’d have taken care of all these things.
She wouldn’t have had to torture herself with the exhaustingly slow pace either because our HR zones are higher, so the running speed would have been more comfortable, too.
Other athletes also noticed that Garmin’s zones are “vastly lower” than they should be:
So, Polar and Garmin have made one crucial mistake — ignoring the resting HR. That’s why athletes don’t see any progress, feel frustrated, lost, and confused.
How We Calculate HR Zones in Welltory
We simply take your age, resting HR, and then follow these five steps to calculate your zones.
(Note that HR zones have nothing to do with your gender or fitness level.)
1. First, we determine your maximum heart rate:
Max HR = 220 − age
2. After that, we figure out your resting HR as follows:
- If you have a fitness tracker that shows your resting HR, we’ll get today’s latest data from it.
- If your tracker has no idea what your today’s resting HR is, we’ll use the most recent data available (as long as it’s no older than three days).
- If such data is unavailable, we’ll use the arithmetic mean of today’s lowest HR scores.
- If there’s no information on your heart rate at all, we’ll turn to the default value of 55 bpm.
3. Then we calculate the lower HR value for zone one (50 percent) using the Karvonen formula:
Resting HR + (0.5 [maximum HR − resting HR]), where 0.5 stands for 50% of your functional capacity.
And the upper value for zone one (60 percent):
Resting HR + (0.6 [maximum HR − resting HR])
4. Now we’re going to find your target heart rate for zone two (60–70%):
Your lower HR value is:
Resting HR + (0.6 [maximum HR − resting HR])
And the upper HR value for your zone two is:
Resting HR + (0.7 [maximum HR − resting HR])
5. Finally, we use the same formula to calculate your HR ranges for other zones, incrementing the functional capacity factor by 0.1.
Let’s say you are a 30-year-old athlete, and your resting HR is 50 bpm. Your HR ranges for zones 1–5 will then be as follows:
- 120–134 bpm for zone one — the Warm-up, 50–60% of your functional capacity. Light and relaxed breathing, barely above average.
- 135–148 bpm for zone two — the Fat Burn, 60–70% of your functional capacity. Here you can speak in short sentences but may start to breathe more heavily.
- 149–162 bpm for zone three — the Cardio, 70–80%. Within this zone, you usually can say just a few words at a time.
- 163–176 bpm for zone four — the Peak, 80–90%. You’ll probably be able to speak in single-word sentences only.
- 177–190 bpm for the Red Line zone, 90–100% of your functional capacity. We include it in the Peak zone. You might find it hard to speak in this zone. Except one word at a time if you are The Boss.*
* Note that each person is unique. If these explanations do not match how you feel, keep a log of your symptoms — you might want to discuss them with your doctor at your next appointment.
We’ve decided to combine the last two zones starting at 80% of intensity for several reasons.
First, if you are looking for a challenge, the best way to improve your anaerobic threshold is to train at-about your anaerobic threshold heart rate. This threshold heart rate sticks around 80–85% of your functional capacity, which is also known as the “lactate tolerance zone.” This zone conditions the body to buffer or withstand the high acidosis as well as to shuttle away the lactic acid to be resynthesized.
Second, the presence of lactic acid leads to high levels of acidosis and subsequently affects muscle cell enzymes. That is, the enzymes that are responsible for aerobic metabolism are sabotaged, and your aerobic endurance capacity is hurt. Repeated days of high-intensity red lining results in damage to these enzymes, and you simply can’t train aerobically without problems.
Third, the “pure” Red Line zone of 90–100% is a pretty dangerous place to hang out. The feeling of dizziness, or feeling close to hyperventilating, may creep up on you out of nowhere. This study found evidence that extremely high-intensity exercise can acutely increase the risk of sudden cardiac arrest or heart rhythm disorders, especially for those who have heart diseases.
If you are still not convinced, check out this story of John Mandrola. He is a 46-year-old athlete who was training like a demon for the USA Cycling Championships and ended up with atrial fibrillation because of exercising to extremes.
Plus, high zone training can downgrade the immune system because it results in the physiological response of the body, which produces an increase in stress hormones such as cortisol. Stress hormones decrease the activity of certain immune cells (T cells and NK cells), which are responsible for directly killing invading microorganisms. Therefore, your resistance against infectious agents is compromised by high zone training.
To help you make your workouts as effective as possible, we offer one Peak zone starting at the most advantageous high-intensity level — 80% of your functional capacity. However, we’d like you to remember that moderate exercise is still the best prescription for good physical and mental health.
How Polar & Garmin Calculate HR Zones
They use the following formula:
Your maximum heart rate × zone intensity (%)
For a 30-year-old athlete with a resting HR of 50 bpm, they’ll calculate your bpm range for zone two (60–70%) as follows:
(220 − 30)*0.6 = 114 bpm — your lower HR value
(220 − 30)*0.7 = 133 bpm — your upper HR value
Thus, your HR range for zone two will be 114–133 bpm.
Let’s do the same thing with the Karvonen formula we use at Welltory:
50 + (0.6 [220 − 30 − 50]) = 134 bpm — your lower HR value
50 + (0.7 [220 − 30 − 50]) = 148 bpm — your upper HR value
And your HR range for zone two will be 134–148 bpm.
As you can see, the difference is enormous: 114–133 bpm by Garmin & Polar vs. 134–148 bpm by Welltory. Plus, Welltory’s zones are self-adjustable to your resting HR. As your fitness improves, the intensity of each zone will increase automatically. Thus, Welltory gives you the HR zones that work best for your current fitness level, so your workouts could pay off faster.
If you are an athlete, the wrong intensity of your zones can ruin all the progress you’ve made — just like it happened with that marathoner above.
If you want to exercise at the right intensity adjusted daily, track your zones in our app. And let these fitness trackers and other apps keep an eye on something else: your heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing cycles.