With fitness classes that project your heart rate onto screens and wristbands being used at parties to compete for the lowest pulse, we’re becoming obsessed with our BPM. But is it healthy to put your ticker to the test?
Along the boulevards of Los Angeles, lined with Bikram studios and juice bars, a new fitness trend is beating loudly. At Orangetheory Fitness, in Santa Monica, it’s all pumping music, pumping hearts and pumping hyperbole. This is one of a multitude of gyms in America (plus a few pioneers already open here) that offers on-the-dot heart-rate analysis as you exercise. It is then displayed publicly on screens in the studio for you and your classmates to see.
What started with fitness bands to monitor heart rate is now taking hold in the gym. The Orangetheory method goes like this: you discuss your goals for the best calorie burn with a trainer, who then fits you with a heart-rate monitor and gives you pointers and motivation during your group workout, which is a mix of cardio on the treadmill, rowing and resistance exercises. Your burn rate depends on your individual physiology, but you can expect to shift 1,000 calories an hour (and continue to burn even after the session finishes, it claims) if you manage to stay within the “orange zone”, a sweet spot of 84%-91% of your maximum heart rate. That isn’t always easy, and the trainer marches up and down barking encouragement in a typically American manner. Fun — if high-fives are your kind of thing.
The maximum heart rate is worked out by your monitor (or, to do it yourself, the rough calculation is 220 minus your age). Outside of exercise, a low resting heart rate, usually taken before you get out of bed in the morning, is an indicator of fitness: anything between 60 beats per minute and 100bpm is considered normal, though an athlete’s reading can be as low as 40bpm. As your heart rate increases during exercise, there are windows you thrive in and others where you’ll suffer; these are known as the zones.
The maximum heart rate is worked out by your monitor (or, to do it yourself, the rough calculation is 220 minus your age)
Quickly, the thumping soundtrack takes over. It’s tough, but the pain is numbed by the excitement of trying to raise the digits on the screen in front of me.
The stats are mesmerising. It’s meant to be you versus your own fitness level, but I immediately turn it into a competition with everyone else as I’m determined to be the one keeping best within the orange zone. I soon reached the orange zone on the treadmill, and then dipped in and out. My advice: don’t push it too hard too early, or you’ll burn out and your bpm will start to slip. Classes such as Orangetheory are drawing in health-conscious Californians in droves, and they have hit the UK, too. Currently, the gym has four locations here, offering the same upbeat music and brand of American enthusiasm, and charging from £140 for 10 weeks.
Similar classes are setting up elsewhere: Fitness First Beat, in Charing Cross, is dedicated to heart-rate-based training; Heartcore Fitness in Fulham, will start a new heart-monitored TRX suspension-training class in September. Taking it easy is notan option.
“High-intensity interval training [HIIT] and strength training are both based on subjective and imprecise measures of exertion,” says Jess Schuring, founder of Heartcore Fitness. “We mix TRX suspension ropes training with HIIT intervals, monitored and projected with colour-coded heart-rate levels: red is peak, yellow is about 80% and blue is for warm-up and recovery.” The result? “A 55-minute class burns 700 to 1,000-plus calories, while mixing in more resistance training than 45 minutes of free weights.” After each class, participants are emailed their heart-rate and calorie-burn stats. “From here, you can compare the results and track improvements,” Schuring says.
Back at Orangetheory, being among a pulsating throng of LA fitsters is a thrilling, albeit dizzying, experience. But questions begin to circulate as rapidly as my blood. Surrounding me is a diverse mix of people: young, not young, some super-healthy, others clearly less so. My ticker is ticking hard and loud — and I am 28 and comparatively fit. Can the encouragement to push your heart this hard really be a force for good? Is a heart-rate obsession a bpm blessing or a cardio curse?
Where once the idea of 24/7 health-metric surveillance would have been considered Orwellian, now the gadgets required are as commonplace as Nike Free trainers on fitness hipsters. In Britain, these include the FitBit, Microsoft Band, Apple watch, the UP by Jawbone and Basis Peak, the latest versions of which all come with some form of built-in heart-monitoring technology. And it’s getting competitive. One Sunday Times Style editor recently attended a dinner during which an Apple watch was passed around and everyone compared their heart-rate stats. Having previously been a health-tech addict myself — constantly checking my bpm — I can’t judge.
Not all experts agree that focusing on heart rate is good for you. Dr Victor Froelicher, professor of cardiovascular medicine and director of the sports cardiology clinic at the Stanford School of Medicine, California, and a leader in the field of research into exercise and the heart, is not convinced. “No one knows the exact playoffs that control your heart rate. It’s an incredibly complex neurological system,” he says. “Aiming for a certain percentage of your max heart rate might help set a training level [of intensity]. But it’s not an exact science.” However, he agrees that raising your bpm during exercise is beneficial, as building a stronger heart is a large part of fitness: “If you are exerting yourself and can only say a few words, then you are increasing your fitness.”
For Christopher Jordan, director of exercise physiology at the Johnson & Johnson Human Performance Institute in Orlando, Florida, heart-rate monitoring still has a place: “Knowing what you’re doing, positively or negatively, will help elicit change,” he says. “We want healthy behaviour to become habitual, and a reminder from a wearable device to move more is a great motivator. Sure, there is a gimmick factor to these monitors, but used properly, they can be a good thing.”
The key is to use this tech as a habit-former without becoming obsessed, or competing with others. For me, that’s tough: I’m competitive, and once spent six weeks beasting myself trying to bring my heart rate down to match that of a football-playing friend. So if you want to try Orangetheory or something similar, listen to your body as diligently as you monitor the numbers on your wrist.