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Tracking Exercise with the Heart Rate Monitor


Guest Column with Teri Tom, MS, RD

As I said in my last column, the problem I have with many dietitians is that they don’t adequately integrate exercise into their nutrition plans. If you’ve read my book Martial Arts Nutrition, you know I take a scientific approach to developing nutrition plans. They’re designed for maximum results and efficiency. I customize a plan for each client based on his or her height, weight, age, daily activity, and exercise. That’s my best hypothesis. With all exercise and nutrition components in place, I’m solving for one variable only—that’s body composition.

Within 5-7 days, we’re going to see one of four scenarios: 1) If you’re gaining muscle and fat, I need to reel in your calories the next time 2) if you’re gaining muscle, losing fat, that’s usually exactly what we want—I won’t change a thing that week 3) if you lose muscle and fat, unless you’re trying to bulk down, we need to up the protein to spare muscle and 4) if you’re losing muscle and gaining fat, I need to increase your calories overall because you’re in starvation mode. That’s it. One of those four scenarios has to occur and from there, I know what to do.

The only missing part of the puzzle, though, is your exercise. Because two of the above scenarios involve muscle loss, it could be a result, not of food, but exercise. As we mentioned last time, if you’re exercising at low intensity/high volume, you are likely going to break down muscle and store fat. Or if you’re doing too much high intensity exercise, you’ll also drop muscle.

The heart rate monitor gives me an idea of what’s going on with your exercise program. I’m partial to the Polar FT7 because it stores information for your last 90 workouts. It tells me the duration of your workouts, maximum and average heart rates, and calories burned. While everyone has a different anaerobic threshold—where they stop burning fat as a preferred fuel source and start burning sugar and muscle—I can see trends in their workouts based on the monitor and can pair this data with changes in their body composition.

For example, if a client loses a pound and a half in muscle one week, and his average heart rate is usually around 140, it’s probably the food that needs to be tweaked and not the exercise—I’d give him more protein. But if his average heart rate is, say, in the 160’s, then I’d have him take the exercise intensity down a notch. By the way, this doesn’t mean we stop doing intervals. We just want to take that average down a notch and we can may do that by toning down the volume of training but not the intensity.

In addition to telling me precisely which way to turn from week to week, the monitor is also a great tool for keeping you on track and accountable for your workouts. My clients love to see both the tangible results of their body composition and the numeric data stored on their monitors. They can actually see on the monitor that doing something is always better than nothing. And more often than not, they can see that workouts they would have thought were completely unproductive are actually quite productive because the monitor accounts for intensity, not just duration or calories burned. To take the guesswork out of your fitness program, then, the monitor is an invaluable tool.


Comment by Kevin — September 7, 2011 @ 8:09 pm

Great article! What are your recommendations on heart rate monitors that go across the chest? its pretty hard to wear a heart rate monitor around the wrist when you are boxing.

Comment by Roy — September 17, 2011 @ 2:37 am

Well done Tom.

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