It’s been more than 35 years since I developed the 180-Formula, best known for aerobic training although initially it was for weight- and fat-loss. During this time, I’ve described it many ways, for many other uses and in many sports (including use with horses), debated the merits, and defined the distinctions. Along the way, I measured and quantified the resulting MAF Heart Rate, the aerobic threshold, the ability to improve submax and maximal performance, increased fat-burning and other important relationships.
These metrics would pave the way to help people develop both improved fitness and better health, including reducing excess body fat, and improving physical performance, metabolism and hormones, and autonomic function. A wide range of benefits have been attained for virtually all those disciplined enough to follow the formula properly.
Recently, I wondered whether a new look at the 180-Formula was needed, one that would help further clarify the original final formula, and even expand it.
One goal of the formula was, and remains, providing accurate guidance in pursuing the development of maximum aerobic function, MAF. For those wanting to burn more body fat, this would result in more energy for increased endurance, particularly the ability to run, bike or move at faster paces with the same submax HR. For those primarily interested in weight loss, or reductions in body fat, it would also be successful. The ability to better manage stress would improve, including faster recovery — whether from exercise, a day at the office, or a very stressful event. Cardiovascular, hormonal, immune functions would also improve, along with the rest of the body’s system.
A common question is how much aerobic-to-anaerobic training is best. Depending on the individual, the optimal aerobic/anaerobic balance of year-round training may be about 80:20. (It’s important to note than many people, even athletes, do well on less anaerobic training and some require none at all.) The aerobic component is based on the MAF HR surrounded by a warm up and cool down, with the same aerobic warm up and cool down used for high-intensity training and also modified for competition).
Eating for 180 success
For many people, the missing key to the 180-Formula is the food factor. A great training plan is great only when it’s supported by the biochemical aspects associated with improving metabolism, hormones, brain function. These and other values are most influenced by eating healthy food, which also means avoiding junk food. Without excellent diet, one could never get the most out of the formula, or the body.
In order to adjust the fat-burning factor for those not eating well, we’d need a new category: Twenty beats would have to be taken away from the 180-age baseline in order to reduce the heart rate in hopes of burning a bit more fat for fuel, and it still may not be enough.
And for those who try the formula without success, it’s the diet that’s usually at fault, not the formula. Even for those who improve using the formula but don’t eat as well, much more improvement could be realized.
An addition to minus 5
During the development of the Formula, there were not a lot of overfat people, especially athletes. But this has changed as most of the world is now overfat. In category 2, there are various indications of reduced health and fitness that require one to reduce the 180-age result by 5. One important addition that I want to add to that list is overfat. It’s clear when body fat is excessive — simply use the waist-to-height ratio. Your waist should be less than half your height — if it’s not, subtract 5. Excess body fat poses many possible health and fitness problems, and is often the reason people don’t get faster at the same HR.
An addition to minus 10
The fourth category of the 180-Formula is one people want to avoid as it’s indicative of more significant reductions in health. Even when they know that is where they stand, and have to reduce their exercise HR by another 10 beats after subtracting age from 180, people feel it’s undue punishment. But it’s not. It’s about finding the most appropriate, best match, personalized HR that is low-risk while allowing a high-quality workout. This, despite the perceived effort.
I must add another common condition to this category — chronic overtraining. These individuals, often athletes who are chronically burned out, those who have had a nervous breakdown or are otherwise chronically stressed, are really seriously unhealthy too. Many athletes are not progressing, continue to have poor performances, various injuries, often because they are chronically overtrained and don’t realize or can’t accept it.
When people experience how easy or slow it is to work out at this HR, they are dismayed, thinking it will be like this forever. It won’t, for two reasons:
First, the pace or power will improve at the same heart rate. Of course, this requires avoiding junk food (especially sugar and refined carbohydrates) to start burning more body fat. You’ll have to walk, run, ride or or otherwise exercise faster. As this process proceeds, there’s another bonus.
Second, after becoming more fit, and a better fat-burner, health problems, originally the reason for being in the -10 category, should improve. Then, you can modify the 180-Formula using a higher HR by moving to category 2 where you subtract 5. This modification of the formula might be accomplished if:
You recovered well from surgery, hospitalization or illness, graduated from rehabilitations, or recovered from overtraining (especially when the MAF Test shows improvement).
You were able to eliminate medication.
And you passed the MAF Test or MAF GPS Test, meaning you are progressing, as indicated by training faster or with more power at your MAF HR.
As described in past articles, I emphasized to be conservative, and if you are uncertain you should choose a lower HR. Now I want to be more firm — when unsure, if in doubt, subtract 10! As you progress, it will be fun seeing your training HR move up while performance increases.
H is for Honest
Training is not a game, but a serious endeavor that’s also fun while promoting health and fitness. Unfortunately, denial is a deceptive white lie. Many believe the absence of disease is great health, but it’s not if risk of disease is high due to various abnormal signs and symptoms. Being honest about calculating an exercise HR from the formula is as essential as being truthful with your doctor, best friend or pet. So it’s vital to choose the correct category.
Just to be sure, passing the MAF Test by demonstrating that you’re running faster, cycling with more power or otherwise performing better at the same HR, virtually ensures you chose the proper category. This assumes your diet is great. Otherwise, why bother monitoring your exercise?
Do not use +5
To be perfectly clear, don’t use category 4 and add 5 beats unless you can actually demonstrate all of the below:
You have been training for more than two years without any of the problems listed in categories 1 and 2. This includes being without physical, biochemical or mental-emotional injury.
You have made progress in athletic competition.
You are not overfat as indicated by the waist-to-height ratio.
Your MAF Test is improving.
Most people don’t qualify for this category, but can work up to it by improving health and fitness.
Bonus for Getting Younger
Improving health and fitness means we are physiologically getting younger, a bonus in itself. That’s what happens when we build better aerobic function, burn more body fat, improve the immune, hormonal and other systems of the body. If you’re younger, your 180-Formula would be different, right?
Yes, another bonus is that you can change your MAF HR over time. Consider these possibilities:
You start at an effective training HR, progress with your program, and a year later, now faster and leaner, you are, of course, a year older. However, because you have progressed — become physiologically younger — you don’t need to reduce your MAF HR by 1 but can keep it the same.
Another year goes by, and you continue progressing. Another bonus — keep your two-year old younger HR the same.
I have found that over a five-year period, a 2-3 HR reduction is typically necessary, but only for those who continue to progress without health or fitness impairments. And only for those whose MAF Test continues improving.
For those who don’t progress — if the pace plateaus, excess body fat remains, injuries develop, etc. — we have to reduce the MAF HR to the previous rate that allowed you to progress.
Even when choosing the proper category to find the best starting MAF HR, the formula is adjusted over time: as health and fitness changes, and with chronological age. The most important objective indicator that guides you best is the MAF Test. Progress doesn’t lie.