woman running with heart rate lifline

Many people work out in addition to holding a diet to achieve their ideal weight. To make these exercises count you have to hit a certain heart rate. Without that, you may get healthier but not necessarily loose any pounds. But what is the best heart rate for weight loss? Check out if you’re in the “weight loss zone” while doing your exercise.

Be safe. Know your maximum heart rate

Heart rate or pulse is the number of times your heart beats in one minute. The heart rate is the lowest when you’re resting, because the least amount of blood is needed for your body. A normal resting heart rate can be between 60 and 100 BPM (beats per minute) for most people typically 60-80 BPM.

It is best to check your resting heart rate right after you wake up while you’re still lying down. Your resting heart rate will change with age, as the heart muscle gets weaker, but it is important to know your baseline heart rate. Sudden changes of puls should be reported to the doctor since that can imply health problems.

When exercising, your heart rate rises as your heart pumps more blood and oxygen into the body. There is a limit with how much effort a heart should be burdened. That limit is called the maximum heart rate (max. HR) and should never be exceeded. The maximum heart rate depends on your age and can be calculated when you subtract your age from 220.

Heart rate for weight loss

Between your resting and maximal heart rate lies the most efficient heart rate for weight loss. If your goal is to lose weight it is important to aim for activities that will bring your heart rate up to the zone that burns the most calories. This zone typically lies between 75-85% of your maximal heart rate and is achieved by vigorous exercise in short intervals.

women working out

It is important to note that if you’re not in a good form and haven’t exercised for a long time you shouldn’t aim for this zone immediately. Slowly build up your form before trying to reach this zone. Start with 60% of the maximum heart rate and build your form up from there. If this feels too exhausting, lower your target heart rate to 50% of max. HR. This is an easy paste, achieved by eg. brisk walking, most people can do without problems.

You should pay attention to your heart rate when doing cardiovascular training for weight loss if you want it to be effective. This doesn’t apply so much to strength training. Depending on the intensity of work out and heart rate achieved,  the body behaves differently. It will only burn fat and calories after achieving a certain heart rate. Doing exercise below this point can make you healthier but it will not help you lose weight. So don’t be surprised if you’re doing long walks or moderate exercise but it doesn’t show on your scale.

There are several heart rate zones you can reach while exercising. Which you should target depends on your fitness goals.

Heart rate training zones

Moderate activity (warm up) Zone 1
Heart rate (% of maximum heart rate):50-60%
  • This zone is reached by moderate activity like brisk walking
  • It is best for warm up and cool down intervals after harder workouts
  • This zone is good for people who are sick and are not supposed to force themselves or haven’t work out for a while
  • Workout in this zone will increase your health, reduce blood pressure and cholesterol
  • Workout in this zone will not make you fitter or stronger


Weight control (maintenance) Zone 2
Heart rate (% of maximum heart rate):60-70%
  • This zone is reached by moderate activity like light jogging
  • It increases cardiovascular health and overall muscle strength
  • Calories burned in this zone are not high but most of the calories burned are from fat. This is why this zone is refereed to as the “fat burning zone”.
  • It is not the best zone for weight loss since calorie burn is small
  • You can work out in this zone for longer periods of time since the intensity is moderate, what makes it good for weight maintenance


Aerobic zoneZone 3
Heart rate (% of maximum heart rate):70-80%
  • This zone is reached by running
  • Exercise in this zone will improve your functional capacity
  • The number and size of blood vessels will increase
  • Your lung capacity will increase
  • Your heart muscle will become stronger.
  • You will be able to preform longer and harder training with less fatigue
  • With this intensity it is possible to do long workouts without too much fatigue which is favorable for weight loss and maintenance.

Anaerobic zoneZone 4
Heart rate (% of maximum heart rate):80-90%
  • This zone is reached by running fast
  • Exercise in this zone will make you stronger, faster and fitter
  • You are breathing heavy when working out and your heart can’t supply all the oxygen and blood your muscles need, making you feel exhaustion after some time.
  • Your muscles burn calories even after the work out
  • You can’t work out for long periods of time in this zone
  • This zone is best for weight loss. Everything from 75-85% of max HR is ideal if you are trying to lose weight because the most amount of calories will be burned in this zone and calories will be burned even after the workout.


Red line zone Zone 5
Heart rate (% of maximum heart rate):90-100%
  • This zone uses your maximum capacity
  • Working out in this zone hurts and can be done only for short amounts of time
  • High performance athletes train in this zone for short bursts e.g. sprinting, swimming

Check your personal heart rate zones with this tool.

Fat burning zone

If you were ever at the gym you have probably heard or even seen charts on exercise equipment that show you the “fat burning zone”. This zone would be equal to zone 1-2 (50-65% of max HR) reached by moderate activity. Because of the name many people believe that this level of activity is ideal for weight loss. After all you want to lose fat when losing weight, right?

woman on treadmil

There should be no confusion that this level of activity, despite of the name, is not the best zone for weight loss since the most calories burned are not in the “fat burn zone” but in the anaerobic zone. Why is it called the fat burn zone then? That’s because the calories burned during exercise that originate from fat have the highest percentage in this zone. That doesn’t change the fact that the total amount of calories burned at this level of activity is far less than in zone 4. Total calories burned is the most important factor for weight loss regardless where those calories are coming from.

There is one more beneficial factor to working out in zone 4 if you want to lose weight. Because of the high intensity exercise the heart can’t get enough oxygen and blood to the muscles, making them exhausted. To repair this state your body will continue to pump more blood and oxygen to your muscles, even after finishing the work out. This way you’re burning calories even when you are resting. This is called afterburn or EPOC (excess post-exercise oxygen consumption).
That’s why the amount of calories burned in zone 4 is far greater than the calories burned with low level exercise like light running. Phelian et al. (1997) researched the effects of low intensity (zone 1) and high intensity (zone 3-4)  exercise on the EPOC response. Although both groups burned 500 calories, the higher intensity exercise group had a significantly higher EPOC response than the lower intensity exercise group (9.0 liters, 45 calories versus 4.8 liters, 24 calories).

Afterburn results in a metabolic boost of your body that can last for 24 hours. The higher the intensity of the workout the higher is the calorie burn in the resting state. That’s the real pay off for the hard work during work out- consuming calories while resting. That’s why the anaerobic zone is most efficient for weight loss.

Know your personal target heart rate

pulse meter

If you want to get most out of your work outs you must pay attention to your heart rate. Working at levels that are to low won’t help you lose weight and working at levels to high can even be dangerous. To monitor your heart rate during exercise simply wear a pulse meter or fitness watch or stop during work out and count your heart rate with your fingers.

Photo credit: Fitness, Heart with life line | Free vector by Vector Fresh