Exercise intensity is a measure of how hard you are working during physical activity. It is important to know your exercise intensity level to get the most benefits from your workout. In this article, we will explain what exercise intensity is, how to measure it, and why it matters for your health and fitness goals.
What Is Exercise Intensity?
Exercise intensity is usually described as low, moderate, or vigorous. These levels are based on how much energy you use and how fast your heart beats during exercise.
- Low intensity exercise raises your heart rate mildly and then keeps it steady. It is fairly slow-paced and easy to do for a long time. Examples of low intensity exercises include walking at a leisurely pace, riding a bike on flat ground, or lifting light weights.
- Moderate intensity exercise raises your heart rate and makes you sweat and breathe harder. It is faster-paced and more challenging than low intensity exercise, but you can still talk comfortably. Examples of moderate intensity exercises are hiking, brisk walking, biking at 10 miles per hour or less, or water aerobics.
- Vigorous intensity exercise gets your heart pumping fast and leaves you breathing hard. It is very fast-paced and difficult to do for a long time. You can only say a few words before needing to catch your breath. Examples of vigorous intensity exercises include running, swimming, jumping rope, cycling faster than 10 miles per hour, or doing high-intensity interval training (HIIT).
How to Measure Exercise Intensity?
There are different ways to measure how hard you are working during exercise. Some of the most common methods are:
- Heart rate. This is the number of times your heart beats per minute (bpm). You can measure your heart rate by using a heart rate monitor, a fitness tracker, or by feeling your pulse on your wrist or neck. To calculate your maximum heart rate, subtract your age from 220. For example, if you are 40 years old, your maximum heart rate is 220 – 40 = 180 bpm. The table below shows the percentage of your maximum heart rate that corresponds to different exercise intensity levels.
|Intensity Level||Percentage of Maximum Heart Rate|
- Perceived exertion. This is how hard you feel you are working during exercise. You can use a scale from 0 to 10 to rate your perceived exertion, where 0 means no effort at all and 10 means maximal effort. The table below shows the perceived exertion that corresponds to different exercise intensity levels.
|Intensity Level||Perceived Exertion|
- Talk test. This is a simple way to check how hard you are breathing during exercise. The table below shows the talk test that corresponds to different exercise intensity levels.
|Intensity Level||Talk Test|
|Low||You can talk and sing easily|
|Moderate||You can talk comfortably but not sing|
|Vigorous||You can only say a few words before pausing for breath|
Why Does Exercise Intensity Matter?
Exercise intensity matters because it affects how many calories you burn, what kind of adaptations your body makes after exercise, and what health benefits you get from exercise.
- Calorie burn. The higher the intensity of your exercise, the more calories you burn during and after exercise. This can help you lose weight or maintain a healthy weight. According to Mayo Clinic, a 160-pound person burns about 204 calories in one hour of low intensity walking, 314 calories in one hour of moderate intensity hiking, and 606 calories in one hour of vigorous intensity running.
- Adaptations. The higher the intensity of your exercise, the more changes your body makes to improve your fitness level. For example, vigorous intensity exercise can increase your aerobic capacity (the ability of your heart and lungs to deliver oxygen to your muscles), muscle strength, endurance, and power more than moderate or low intensity exercise.
- Health benefits. The higher the intensity of your exercise, the more health benefits you get from exercise. For example, vigorous intensity exercise can lower your risk of death more than moderate or low intensity exercise. It can also improve your mood and lower your symptoms of depression more than moderate or low intensity exercise.
How to Choose Your Exercise Intensity Level?
The best exercise intensity level for you depends on several factors, such as:
- Your fitness goal. Do you want to improve your fitness, lose weight, train for a competition, or do a combination of these? Your answer will help you determine how hard and how often you should exercise. For example, if you want to lose weight, you may need to exercise at a higher intensity or for a longer time than if you want to maintain your fitness.
- Your fitness level. How fit are you right now? Your fitness level affects how hard you can and should exercise. For example, if you are new to exercise, you may need to start at a low intensity and gradually build up to a moderate or vigorous intensity. If you are already fit, you may need to exercise at a higher intensity or vary your intensity to challenge yourself and avoid a plateau.
- Your health condition. Do you have any medical conditions or physical limitations that affect your ability to exercise? Your health condition affects how safe and effective exercise is for you. For example, if you have heart disease, diabetes, or high blood pressure, you may need to exercise at a lower intensity or under the supervision of your doctor. If you have joint pain, arthritis, or osteoporosis, you may need to avoid high-impact exercises that can worsen your condition.
The general recommendation for most healthy adults is to get at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity aerobic exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity aerobic exercise per week, or a combination of both. You should also do strength training for all major muscle groups at least twice a week. You can achieve more health benefits if you increase your exercise time or intensity.
However, these are only guidelines and not rules. You should listen to your body and adjust your exercise intensity according to how you feel and what works best for you. Be realistic and don’t push yourself too hard, too fast. Fitness is a lifetime commitment, not a sprint to a finish line.
Talk to your doctor before starting any new exercise program, especially if you have any medical conditions or you are not sure how intense you should exercise.
Exercise intensity is most closely related to your heart rate, which reflects how much energy you use and how hard your body works during physical activity. Knowing your exercise intensity level can help you get the most benefits from your workout. You can measure your exercise intensity by using your heart rate, perceived exertion, or talk test. You can choose your exercise intensity level based on your fitness goal, fitness level, and health condition. Remember to consult your doctor before starting any new exercise program and listen to your body when exercising.