You don’t need a lot of equipment, gear, or other items to be active unless your activity of choice is, say, ice-wall climbing, kayaking, trapeze artistry, or some other activity which clearly focuses around using things to move yourself through a certain environment.
However, there are certain, technically unnecessary items which I do consider to be crucial to my continued athletic lifestyle –this will be the first post of numerous ones which act as unintentional product placement. While I’m fairly confident that I would be motivated to maintain my exercise regimen without these tools (especially as I continue to be amazed by the mentally rejuvenating power of a good run after an exhausting day), using them helps me to more easily incorporate activity into my life. A note that this post is very picture-light because I literally left everything in the world that I would like to take pictures of at work (I am taking a well-deserved day off today, both from work and from exercise).
First up is the Heart Rate Monitor (HRM). I have a Polar F6, which is great and was worth every penny (but I also bought it on sale). I hope that this post will be helpful to those who don’t have HRMs—it’s always good (and I think interesting) to know how your body works, and most cardio gym machines have those nice little metal pads which you can put your hands on to measure your heart rate mid-workout. You can also take your heart rate by just counting beats per minute, but doing that mid-workout can be, ahem, challenging.
Of course, a HRM tells you how hard your heart is working by tracking heart beats per minute. Generally, HRMs consist of a chest strap (with a little transmitter thing that goes right over your heart) and a watch – they do make HRMs without chest straps, but I don’t possibly see how they can be as reliable. Being aware of how hard your heart is working while you are exercising is beneficial (especially if you’re a dork who likes to know how things work) – it allows you to really understand what your body does during a workout from a different point of view. HRMs also track the number of calories that your body burns during a workout (based on HR, gender, age, height, and weight), which is very useful, but I find it to be less interesting, so I’ll talk about the different heart rate “zones” as they correspond with the intensity of a workout.
Absolutely any way that you get your heart beating faster than it does when you’re sitting around, regardless of intensity, is great and beneficial to your health.
I just spent 1.5 hours trying to put together a clear and helpful chart/graph/visual about the different heart rate zones, but got overwhelmed and decided to just recommend these two websites as great places to learn more about heart rate zone training. My chart/graph/visual was becoming far too close to plagiarism, anyway….
You’ll see on those sites that there are 5 (or 4) different zones of exercising, and all of them benefit your heart and muscles in a different way. I’ll try to generally summarize. When exercising at a lower intensity, your heart and lungs have time to get your muscles the oxygen they need to function, so with muscles running on oxygen (“aerobic” exercise), the fuel that your body burns is stored energy, or fat. When exercising at a very high intensity, your heart and lungs don’t have the time to get oxygen to your muscles, so the exercise becomes “anaerobic”– the muscles are fueled by glycogen, which is a carbohydrate/sugar that is stored in the muscles. Working out at this high intensity fatigues muscles more quickly, which makes sense. When the muscles are working hard to fuel themselves, they produce lactic acid, which is what causes muscles to feel tired. There is the lovely zone right in the middle of these two ranges that burns about equal fat and glycogen, and that’s a good place to aim to be during workouts.
I think I got all of that pretty close to accurate (a reminder that I am just a good Googler and not a scientist), but there’s really great information about the different HR zones on those websites.
I’ve had my Polar-F6 heart rate monitor for about a year and a half, and it’s only missed one or two workouts. It displays my current heart rate, calories burned, time spent in my “ideal” HR zone, maximum and average HRs for a workout, and time spent exercising. It also stores all of this information. If I hadn’t left my HRM at work, I would show you pictures of these things. Whoops.
I love being aware of my heart rate (HR) when I’m exercising– if I am thinking, “WOW this is hard and I feel like I might just die” and then look down and see that my HR is nearing 180+ (which is very high and a level which I can’t maintain for longer than like. 3 minutes max), my pain/hard work/looming expectation of death is justified. Similarly, if I think, “wow, I feel really relaxed,” mid-workout and see my HR around 110 or so, I realize I should probably pick up the intensity a bit so I get the workout that I want.
Seeing the changes and my increased athleticism in terms of what I’m able to do at certain HRs is also neat – when I first started running, my HR was pretty much always between 165 and 175 during runs (which is high), and now it’s between 145 and 165, depending on how fast I’m running. My resting HR when I first got the HRM was 62 (normal/healthy range for adults is 60-80), and when I last measured it (which, I’ll admit, was around October when I was finishing up my half marathon training), it was 42. My body might still be technically classified as “obese,” but my resting HR classifies me as an athlete. Changes like this in your heart’s strength are really great measures of health and fitness (and MUCH better measures of those things than the scale is).
Being aware of calories burned helps me to view exercise as something more tangible. After a workout, rather than risk thinking, “ugh, I’m exhausted and my muscles hurt grumble grumble. What do have I have show for what I just did right at this moment?” I feel like I have accomplished something which I can really understand. For me, the HRM makes exercise more concrete – I finish a workout with data and charts (well, I can make charts) as proof of my exercise, rather than just the tired muscles, low iPod battery, and fresh dose of endorphins.
I also set workout goals based on my HRM, saying, “Sarah, I don’t care how you do it, just burn 500 calories (or whatever) so that you can cross that off your list for the day.” Using my HRM to put concrete definitions on my workouts helps me to be satisfied with each and every workout (assuming I hit the calorie burn goal, but I also just will do jumping jacks until I do).
Both feeling in my body & understanding in my brain what I’m asking my body to do when I exercise makes incorporating exercise endlessly rewarding, both physically and intellectually. Gosh I’m a dork