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Exercise intensity: Why it matters, how it's measured
Get the most from your workouts by knowing how to gauge your exercise intensity.By Mayo Clinic staff
When you work out, are you working hard or hardly working? Exercising at the correct intensity can help you can get the most out of your physical activity — making sure you're not overdoing or even underdoing it. Here's a look at what exercise intensity means and how to make it work for you.
Understanding exercise intensity
When you're doing aerobic activity, such as walking or biking, exercise intensity correlates with how hard the activity feels to you. Exercise intensity also is reflected in how hard your heart is working.
There are two basic ways to measure exercise intensity:
- How you feel. Exercise intensity is a subjective measure of how hard physical activity feels to you while you're doing it — your perceived exertion. Your perceived level of exertion may be different from what someone else feels doing the same exercise. For example, what feels to you like a hard run can feel like an easy workout to someone who's more fit.
- Your heart rate. Your heart rate offers a more objective look at exercise intensity. In general, the higher your heart rate during physical activity, the higher the exercise intensity.
Studies show that your perceived exertion correlates well with your heart rate. So if you think you're working hard, your heart rate is likely elevated.
You can use either way of gauging exercise intensity. If you like technology and care about the numbers, a heart rate monitor might be a useful device for you. If you feel you're in tune with your body and your level of exertion, you likely will do fine without a monitor.
Choosing your exercise intensity
How do you know how hard you should be exercising? For most healthy adults, the Department of Health and Human Services recommends these exercise guidelines:
- Aerobic activity. Get at least 150 minutes a week of moderate aerobic activity — such as brisk walking, swimming or mowing the lawn — or 75 minutes a week of vigorous aerobic activity — such as running or aerobic dancing. You can also do a combination of moderate and vigorous activity, preferably spread throughout the course of a week.
- Strength training. Do strength training exercises at least twice a week. Consider free weights, weight machines or activities that use your own body weight — such as rock climbing or heavy gardening. The amount of time for each session is up to you.
So think about your reasons for exercising. Do you want to improve your fitness, lose weight, train for a competition, or a combination of these? Your answer will help determine the appropriate level of exercise intensity.
To reap the most health benefits from exercise, your exercise intensity must generally be at a moderate or vigorous level. For weight loss, the more intense your exercise, or the longer you exercise, the more calories you burn. However, balance is important. Overdoing it can increase your risk of soreness, injury and burnout. If you're new to regular exercise and physical activity, you may need to start out at a light intensity and gradually build up to a moderate or vigorous intensity.
Gauging intensity by how you feel
Here are some clues to help you judge your exercise intensity.
Light exercise intensity
Light activity feels easy. Here are clues that your exercise intensity is at a light level:
- You have no noticeable changes in your breathing pattern.
- You don't break a sweat (unless it's very hot or humid).
- You can easily carry on a full conversation or even sing.
Moderate exercise intensity
Moderate activity feels somewhat hard. Here are clues that your exercise intensity is at a moderate level:
- Your breathing quickens, but you're not out of breath.
- You develop a light sweat after about 10 minutes of activity.
- You can carry on a conversation, but you can't sing.
Vigorous exercise intensity
Vigorous activity feels challenging. Here are clues that your exercise intensity is at a vigorous level:
- Your breathing is deep and rapid.
- You develop a sweat after a few minutes of activity.
- You can't say more than a few words without pausing for breath.
Beware of pushing yourself too hard too often. If you're short of breath, in pain or can't work out as long as you'd planned, your exercise intensity is probably higher than your fitness level allows. Back off a bit and build intensity gradually.
(1 of 2)
- 2008 physical activity guidelines for Americans. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. http://www.health.gov/paguidelines/pdf/paguide.pdf. Accessed Jan. 17, 2011.
- Target heart rates. American Heart Association. http://www.americanheart.org/presenter.jhtml?identifier=4736. Accessed Feb. 7, 2011.
- Stay active and be fit! President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports. http://www.fitness.gov/publications/council/stayactiveandbefit_pdf.pdf. Accessed Feb. 7, 2011.
- Laskowski ER (expert opinion). Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn. Feb. 16, 2011.