Teaching About Heart Rate in PE

One of the most important and (I think) useful units I teach in my 9th grade PE class is on Cardiorespiratory Exercise. During this unit I spend a good bit of time teaching about heart rate. I think it is important for them to learn:

  1. What is heart rate and how does exercise affect it?
  2. How to manually take heart rate and what is considered “normal”?
  3. What is our target heart rate range for moderate to vigorous exercise and how do we calculate it?
  4. What happens to heart rate during different intensities of exercise?

In this post I will take you through each of these 4 questions and tell you how I direct my activities to answer these questions.

What is heart rate and how does exercise affect it?

Most students at the 9th grade level have been introduced to heart rate but they don’t really understand exactly what it is, but they do understand how exercise affects it. I use this question as an introduction to a lesson and combine it with a warm up like pictured below. After the warm up, I will ask them what happened to their heart rate throughout the exercise. They should answer that it increased the longer they exercised (hopefully!). That leads us right into making sure they understand what heart rate is. I also love to do a poll of who knows how to calculate their heart rate…most students will raise their hand but I bet they are relying on technology to take their heart rate and don’t know how to do it manually.

How to manually take heart rate and what is considered “normal”?

I always get an eye roll (or two) when I ask students to learn to manually take their heart rate. They want to rely on their technology to do it for them, so I make sure to explain WHY we need to be able to do it manually just in case.

To demonstrate how to take heart rate here are my steps…

  1. I play a youtube video of someone manually taking heart rate with instructions. I would link it, but honestly every year I’ve used a different video. The goal is to create my own…eventually.
  2. Review the video and make sure they know
    • Where to take heart rate
      • Left wrist on the thumb side
    • How long to count
      • I have my students do a full 60 second count until I feel they have had enough practice then let them cut it down to 30 seconds. We talk about how 60 seconds is the most accurate. *Make sure they are not using their thumb to take pulse*
    • Why we take radial pulse versus carotid
  3. They practice finding their radial pulse and raise their hand if they have trouble finding it. I am able to circulate and help find the pulse for anyone having trouble.
  4. Once the whole class has found their radial pulse we will together take a 60 second resting heart rate. I will control the timer so that all they have to do is count.
  5. I have them pair up or group up and practice taking each others heart rates and make sure that they are within 5 bpm of what they took for themselves. Anyone way off keeps trying. With Covid now in the picture this is something you may or may not be able to do.
  6. Bonus: if you have a class with a good number of smart watches with technology have them compare what they took manually with what their smart watch says. You can get some good questioning out of those numbers. Why are they different? Which is the most accurate? How do the smart watches even calculate the heart rate? Etc.

What is our target heart rate range for moderate to vigorous exercise and how do we calculate it?

Here is the part of learning about heart rate where they must do math, yes math, and yes they hate it a little bit. It is so important before you have them calculating their target heart rate ranges that you clearly convey the WHY! If you don’t, you will lose them before you ever begin. In my class, we do a whole unit on learning about the FITT of the 4 types of exercise so I can tie in the intensity for cardiorespiratory exercise is “moderate to vigorous”. We talk about how if we are not getting into the moderate intensity that we aren’t meeting our daily/weekly recommendations of cardio exercise. I also try to bring in some real world examples like Orange Theory, a gym where how hard you push yourself depends on your heart rate and getting into the orange or red zones. If you aren’t familiar with Orange Theory here is their website for you to explore https://www.orangetheory.com/en-us/. There are great video examples of this, and I have had a guest trainer come in to talk about those zones. There are a lot of gyms/fitness centers using heart rate technology today this is just once example. Those are real world applications for what you are about to teach and can help you hook students before doing the dreaded math.

When I teach this I use this worksheet I created (https://www.teacherspayteachers.com/Product/Target-Heart-Rate-Range-Multi-Page-Activity-for-PE-7419391) which has a place for them to do their calculations for maximum heart rate, moderate heart rate range vigorous heart rate range, a place for them to write their target zones clearly so they will have them, an activity for them to track their heart rate through different intensities of exercise, and an exit ticket for the activity.

Before I give out the worksheets, I do an example on the whiteboard. I use myself as an example (it’s fun to have them try to guess my age since it’s needed for all the math calculations), and just have them watch. Next I do an example with someone in the class, most kids are the same age so in reality I am doing it for all of them. Next I have them use the worksheet to calculate their maximum heart rate and moderate to vigorous ranges. I use 50-70% for moderate and 70-85% for vigorous, these are based on ACSM recommendations.

After they have calculated and peer review each others work, we begin the activity on page 3 of the above worksheet. I have 90 minute classes so I am able to get through both of these in the same day usually, but if you have shorter classes you may have to do the calculations one day and the activity the next class. The activity takes them through different intensities of exercise and has them take their heart rate after each step. This allows them to see how their heart rate changes as the intensity of exercise changes. They can compare the heart rate they took with their target heart rate ranges and see if they were able to get themselves into the moderate/vigorous category. The end of the activity has them rest and see how long it takes their heart rate to return to resting.

Page 1 of my 4 page “Calculating Heart Rate Range Multi Page Activity”

What happens to heart rate during different intensities of exercise?

After the activity I use the exit ticket portion of my resource to talk about what happens to their heart rate during the activity. They are able to discuss why they believe their heart rate acted as it did and this opens up great discussion for how heart rate acts differently in different people. I also discuss why their heart rate may or may not have returned to resting. It is wonderful to watch their wheels turn when you ask these higher level thinking questions.

Doing this at the beginning of cardio unit allows us to use heart rate in many different ways and for many different activities. I know a lot of them will fall back into using their technology to take their heart rate, and I am ok with that since now I know they understand that number, what it is, and how they can use it to modify exercise as they need to.

I would love to hear if you are teaching heart rate in your PE class?

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