Take it to the Max Heart Rate for Better Health

Health Articles
May 18, 2017

We know that physical activity is important for our health, but are some sports better than others? Thanks to the heart rate data collected by our Steel HR watches, we were able to examine which activities make heart rate peak the most, and how this might be related to overall heart health.

We dove into the heart rate data of users that have participated in various sports and forms of exercises at least 15 times over the last 5 months. For this study, we looked at two important heart rate measurements, the average percentage of maximum heart rate reached during an exercise session and average overnight heart rate.

The Nitty Gritty

Measuring percentage of maximum heart rate (max HR) reached is a good indicator of how hard the heart is working during an exercise session, and thus how challenging and likely it is to cause improvements in cardiovascular fitness. While an individual’s true max HR is best measured through lab tests, it can be closely approximated with the simple formula of 220-age. For example, if you are 30 years old, your approximate max HR is 190 (220-30). If your peak heart rate during a run is 160, then you reached 84% of your max HR.

Overnight heart rate, on the other hand, is a simple and reliable predictor of all-cause and cardiovascular mortality, and thus a good indicator of overall heart health. Population studies show that, on average, a low heart rate during sleep is associated with better cardiovascular health.
The graph below plots the average percentage of maximum heart rate that users reach during sessions of various activities, along with their average overnight heart rate.

What We See

In general, it seems that users who practice sports and activities that raise the heart rate more during exercise have a lower overnight heart rate. However, we do see some variations within this general pattern.
Here’s what we can see: Users who ski, play soccer, or play squash appear to have the lowest average overnight heart rate. On the other hand, while dancing, yoga, pilates, and hiking may be great for the soul, on average they don’t appear to be linked to as low of an overnight heart rate.
If you’re looking for an intense workout, running is the sport that causes users to reach the highest percentage of max HR during an exercise session, with swimming and boxing coming in 2nd & 3rd place. On the other hand, users who lift weights may not reach a high percentage of max HR during a session, but their average overnight heart rate is lower compared to users who perform other activities with similar peak heart rates.

Key Takeaway

As always, any physical activity is better than none, but activities that cause a higher peak heart rate may be the most beneficial to your overall heart health.

Study methodology

This study was conducted based on data from more than 42,000 users. Withings guarantees the confidentiality of personal data and protects the privacy of all its users. Therefore, all data used in this study is anonymized and aggregated.