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A Heart is not a Heart: Do Women Need a Different Heart Rate Max Formula?

Posted Jul 18 2010 5:14pm

Heart_rate Figuring out your maximum heart rate used to be simple: 220-AGE.

That's what I was taught in school. That's what most people, if you ask, will tell you.

Of course it wasn't exactly right either and there's an interesting history behind maximum heart rate.

The year was 1968.

Bill Haskell, an exercise physiologist at the U.S. Public Health Service had been given an assignment by his boss Sam Fox, MD.  Dr. Fox, a cardiologist, was scheduled to talk at a World Health Organization meeting on exercise and heart disease.  Haskell's job was to collect research on maximum heart rate testing. All the experts agreed that exercise was important following a cardiac event or if you had heart disease.

But, at the time, no one knew how hard a person should exercise following a heart attack. Haskell assembled the information and plotted the results on a graph. He and Fox studied the graph and discovered a pattern. By drawing a line through the data points, Haskell found that the maximum heart rate at the intervals of 20 years, 40 years and 60 years, was 220 minus the age. Haskell and Fox presented their finding at scientific meetings in Tel Aviv and Tuxedo Park, New York. In 1971, they published their formula that was to become the gold standard for exercise.

The problem with their discovery was the studies were done only on men all under the age of sixty who did not exercise regularly. Haskell and Fox did not actually perform any research. They compiled data from existing studies. So, their formula was not valid for all people. For a valid study, the results must be true in other places, with other people and at other times. Since Fox and Haskell's work was only on men under the age of sixty, the formula was then only valid for sedentary men under the age of sixty.

Now, new information from Northwestern University in Chicago, suggests that women need their own formula: 206 minus 88 percent of a woman’s age.

The old formula for a woman age 40 was:

220-40 = 180 beats per minute.

The new formula is:

206-(40*.88) = 171 beats per minute.

The researchers followed over 5400 women for 16 years and discovered a link between abnormal heart activity and risk of heart attack. That's also when they discovered the new formula.

Some women who used the old formula (based on men under the age of 60) found that they could not sustain the heart rate, got frustrated, or exhausted during the exercise. The new formula should correct that making exercise more productive and useful.

But, you may not want to wear a heart rate monitor or stop and take your pulse while jogging or running or cycling. If so, you can read about a different method by clicking here .


Gulati, M., L. J. Shaw, et al. "Heart rate response to exercise stress testing in asymptomatic women: the st. James women take heart project." Circulation 122(2): 130-7.

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