How to Gauge the Exercise Intensity of Your Fitness Routine

Exercise intensity

Measuring exercise intensity is an important part of designing a fitness routine that is safe and effective. Once you have set your fitness goals or begun your exercise program, it is important to learn how your body reacts to movement.

When just getting started, you want to start out at a low to moderate exercise intensity. If you are walking, start by walking at a comfortable pace. It’s important not to hurt yourself or overdo it in the beginning to prevent illness or injury.

Examples of Exercise Intensity

Low-Intensity Exercise:

  • Walking at a casual pace
  • Cycling at a casual pace
  • Using an elliptical machine
  • Slowly lifting weights

Moderate-Intensity Exercise:

  • Brisk walking
  • Water aerobics
  • Bicycling slower than 10 mph
  • Tennis (doubles)
  • Dancing
  • Pushing a lawnmower
  • Hiking
  • Rollerblading

Vigorous Intensity Exercise:

  • Race walking, jogging, or running
  • Swimming laps
  • Tennis (singles)
  • Step aerobics
  • Bicycling 10 mph or faster
  • Hiking uphill

Gauging Your Exercise Intensity

There are a few ways to gauge your exercise intensity. The first is to measure your heart rate by using a monitoring device or checking your own pulse immediately after exercise. However, this method may not be appropriate for individuals taking certain medications that affect exercise heart rate such as beta blockers for high blood pressure, and those with health conditions that affect heart rate.

Another way to gauge your exercise intensity is by using the rating of perceived exertion (RPE) scale. Whether you walk, swim, run, bicycle, or do step aerobics, your exercise intensity should be within a range of comfort.

Perceived exertion is how hard you feel like your body is working. It is based on the physical sensations a person experiences during physical activity, including increased heart rate, increased breathing rate, increased sweating, and muscle fatigue. Paying attention to how you feel during exercise is also a great way to know your body and its capabilities. By using RPE, you will learn to evaluate your internal comfort zone.

How to Use the RPE Method

During physical activity, use the scale of perceived exertion to assign numbers to how you feel. Self-monitoring how hard your body is working can help you adjust the intensity of the activity by speeding up or slowing down your movements.

10-Point Scale of Perceived Exertion:

  • 0 – Nothing at all (sitting on the couch)
  • 1 – Very light
  • 2 – Fairly light (comfortable, can maintain for a long time, little effort)
  • 3 – Moderate (still comfortable, but breathing is harder)
  • 4 – Somewhat hard (sweating, but can still carry on a conversation with little effort)
  • 5 – Hard
  • 6
  • 7 – Very hard
  • 8
  • 9
  • 10 – Hard, very hard

Perceived exertion is assessed by using a 0-10 chart to rate the feelings caused by your exertion. For example, sitting quietly in a chair would have a rating of 0. Walking at a pace that you feel is moderate might increase the rating to a 3. The rating of your exertion should be independent of the pace you think you are walking; it is entirely dependent on the feelings caused by the exertion, which means it is relative to your own feelings.

You can increase your exercise intensity when you feel you are ready. It should be a natural progression as your body becomes more physically fit.

For more information about measuring your exercise intensity, click here for a previous Your Weight Matters blog post.

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