Maximum heart rate (or pulse rate) [HRmax] is the fastest / quickest rate at which your heart can beat. In the normal situation maximum heart rate is achieved in response to exercise. The range of maximum heart rate in the general population is highly variable with young adults having values around 200. In general maximum heart rate decreases with age.
There are numerous formulae to estimate maximum heart rate, however due to the large population variation the only accurate way to make an assessment is via an exercise (cardiac) stress test to measure directly. These, particularly for people at the start of their fitness journey, should only be undertaken under medical supervision due to their inherent risks associated with inducing high heart rates.
It has been observed that individuals of the same age, and similar training in the same sport, can have measured HRmax values 60 bpm apart, which strongly calls into question the application of estimation formulae.
Common Estimation Formulae
There are over 30 formulae to estimate maximum heart rate, all sharing the same feature of being dependent on age alone. The two most common ones are presented below.
220 – age
Certainly the most well known formula, and presented in countless textbooks, articles and used by a plethora of computer applications. However, despite the widespread use and acceptance of this formula there is no published record of research for this equation and review advises that it has no scientific merit for use in exercise physiology and related fields. It is estimated that it has an error standard deviation of ~12 beats, suggesting 95% of people will have a true value less than or greater than calculated by 24 beats per minute (a range of 48 beats!).
Whilst attributed to Fox and Haskell, the origins of the formula are vague, though it is understood that they did not derive the formula from original research. Additionally, if one derives a regression formula from the Fox et al manuscript data a different result is achieved: HRmax = 215.4 – age * 0.9147. So even the original data from which the observation established the formula does not support the equation.
208 – (0.7 * age)
Utilising both meta-analysis and laboratory studies, Tanaka, Monahan, & Seals published this formula in 2001. They concluded that HRmax is to a large extent predictable by age alone and is independent of gender and habitual physical activity status. Their study demonstrated a standard deviation of ~10 beats per minute, suggesting a 95% accuracy of ±20 beats per minute. It is probably considered one of the more accurate formula, but with a range of 40 beats, still does not seem great for training purposes.
References & Further Reading
- Resting Heart Rate.
- Robergs, Robert A. & Landwehr, Roberto (2002). The surprising history of the “HRmax=220-age” equation. Journal of Exercise Physiology Online, 5(2), pp. 1-10.
- Hirofumi Tanaka, Kevin D Monahan, Douglas R Seals (2001). Age-predicted maximal heart rate revisited, Journal of the American College of Cardiology, Volume 37, Issue 1, pp 153-156.
- Kolata, Gina (2001). “‘Maximum’ Heart Rate Theory Is Challenged”, New York Times.
- Gellish, R.L. et al. (2007) Longitudinal Modeling of the Relationship between Age and Maximal Heart Rate. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 39 (5), p. 822-829.
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