Is Your Workout Hard Enough?
You probably know that engaging in regular physical activity is an important step in reducing your risk for disease and early death. Keeping active can even help minimize or eliminate symptoms of chronic disease, if you live with one. But if you exercise at an intensity that’s too low for you, you’ll miss out on some important benefits.
Adults need 75-150 minutes of vigorous-intensity activity or 150-300 minutes of moderate-intensity activity throughout the week. This weekly exercise should include moderate-intensity or greater aerobic exercise and moderate-intensity or greater full body strengthening at least twice per week. As a rule of thumb, two minutes of moderate activity equals one minute of vigorous activity. People who want to lose more than 5% of their bodyweight or want to keep a significant amount of weight off might need more; experts recommend 300 minutes (or more) of moderate- and vigorous-intensity exercise throughout the week (60+ minutes per day).
These guidelines, set by the CDC, are based on a comprehensive review of scientific literature that investigates the impact of physical activity on health. The research shows that people who meet exercise recommendations (only 23% of Americans!) sleep better, feel better, and function better. They also prevent or minimize weight gain and reduce risk of dementia, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, osteoporosis, and some cancers. Exercise at any intensity or duration provides some benefit. But moderate and vigorous activities make the most substantial impact, especially if you want to increase your fitness level or change the shape of your body with exercise. Ensuring you get enough starts with knowing what qualifies as moderate or vigorous for your fitness level.
There are several easy-to-use methods that can help you identify your ideal intensity. How much you sweat isn’t one of them! Professionals recommend checking-in on your intensity using one of these methods at least once every 15 minutes during a workout. If you’re concerned about whether it’s safe for you to exercise or increase your exercise intensity, speak with a medical professional.
The talk test
Your ability to speak or hold a conversation during aerobic exercise can reliably indicate your exercise intensity. The premise is that when you’re working hard, you’re less able to speak.
First, choose something to say. A familiar nursery rhyme or the Pledge of Allegiance works. If you have a workout partner, try holding a conversation with them. There are no specific guidelines for the talk test, but these rules generally apply:
- Light intensity: You can converse and/or sing with no difficulty.
- Moderate intensity: You can “talk the talk while walking the walk,” with only slight difficulty. You should be able to hold a conversation but sing only a few words before running out of breath.
- Vigorous intensity: You are winded and can only mutter a few words or cannot talk at all. You need to pause or breathe between phrases. Singing feels nearly impossible.
Also known as the Rated Perceived Exertion Scale, this method matches how you feel during exercise with a number. Your Borg Scale rating is unique to you because how you rate an activity is relative to your current fitness level. Your rating should consider all feelings of physical stress, effort, and fatigue.
- Light intensity: 0-3 (nothing at all to somewhat hard)
- Moderate intensity: 4-6 (moderate activity)
- Vigorous intensity: 7-10 (very hard to very, very hard)
Your perceived intensity level
Your perceived exertion rating
What you might be doing (depending on your fitness level)
|Nothing at all||0-1||Sitting, laying down, reading a book, driving|
|Light activity||2-3||Walking through a store. Breathing is easy.|
|Moderate activity||4-6||Activities that speed up your heart and breathing rate, but do not make you out of breath. You can hold a conversation.|
|Hard activity||7-8||Walking briskly or with a purpose, mopping or vacuuming, raking the yard, or another activity that noticeably gets the heart pounding and breathing faster. You might be out of breath and can speak a sentence or two.|
|Very hard activity||9||Sprinting, high-intensity interval training (HIIT), carrying heavy loads of groceries, shoveling snow, or another activity at the highest level of exertion that you can sustain. Can only speak one word at a time.|
|Very, very hard activity||10||Maximum sprinting or another burst of activity that cannot be sustained for long. Completely out of breath and unable to speak.|
Target heart rate
The number of times your heart beats per minute can also reflect your effort level. Your target heart rate for exercise is determined using your maximum heart rate. Your maximum heart rate is an age-based estimation of the upper limit of what your cardiovascular system can handle during exercise. It can be calculated most simply with the following equation:
- 220 – your age in years = maximum heart rate in beats per minute (BPM). For example, a 52-year-old exerciser would have a maximum heart rate of 168 BPM (220 minus 52 equals 168).
Keep track of your heart rate during exercise using a heart rate monitor or by checking your pulse rate. Your target heart rates can be determined as follows:
- Light intensity: At rest or during light activity, a heart rate in the range of 60-100 BPM is normal. Highly active individuals may have a resting heart rate as low as 40. Having a lower resting heart rate indicates good heart condition.
- Moderate intensity: 50-70% of your maximum heart rate. For the 52-year-old above, 168 BPM x 50-70% = 84-118 BPM.
- Vigorous intensity: 70-85% of your maximum heart rate. For 52-year-old above, 168 BPM x 70-85% = 118-143 BPM.
Keep in mind that these targets are based on age only and do not consider your gender, current fitness level or health status. Therefore, your ideal intensity might be higher or lower than what the target sets for your age group. Maximum heart rate may be overestimated in young adults and underestimated in people over 40. This formula may not be appropriate for people taking beta-blocker medications, which can change how the heart responds to exercise.
Try calculating your heart rate reserve to find your ideal heart-rate training zones for specific activities. This method is best if you have training goals.