When you exercise, are you working hard or hardly working? How do you know?

The right intensity can help you get the most out of your training — and make sure you’re not pushing too hard or too little.

How hard should you be exercising?

Aerobic activity

Get at least 150 minutes a week of moderate or 75 minutes a week of vigorous aerobic training. You can achieve more health benefits if you ramp up your exercise to 300 minutes or more of moderate aerobic activity a week.

Strength training

Do strength training for all major muscle groups at least twice a week. You can use free weights, weight machines or your own body weight. Aim to do a single set of each exercise, using a weight or resistance level heavy enough to tire your muscles after about 12 to 15 repetitions.

Exercise intensity must generally be at a moderate or vigorous level for maximum benefit, and if the purpose is for weight loss, the more intense or longer your activity, the more calories you burn.

Consider your reasons for exercising. Do you want to improve your fitness, lose weight, train for a competition or do a combination of these? Your answer will help determine the appropriate level of exercise intensity.

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 if you have any medical conditions or you’re not sure how intensely you should exercise. Start at a light intensity if you’re new to exercise, gradually building up to a moderate or vigorous intensity.

What is exercise intensity?

When you’re doing any aerobic activity, exercise intensity correlates with how hard the activity feels to you. Exercise intensity is also shown in your breathing and heart rate, whether you’re sweating, and how tired your muscles feel.

The two basic ways of measuring exercise intensity are how you feel and your heart rate, and you can use either method. If you like technology, you can check your heart rate with an activity tracker that includes a heart rate monitor. If you feel you’re in tune with your body and your exertion level, you’ll likely do fine without a monitor.

Gauging intensity by how you feel

Exercise intensity is a subjective measure of how hard physical activity feels to you while you’re doing it — your own perceived exertion, which may well be different from what someone else feels like doing the same exercise.

Here are some indicators to help you judge your exercise intensity.

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 only a few minutes of activity.
  • You can’t say more than a few words without pausing for breath.
Overexertion

Beware of pushing yourself too hard too often. If you are short of breath, are 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.

Gauging intensity using 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.

To use this method, you first have to figure out your maximum heart rate — the upper limit of what your cardiovascular system can handle during physical activity.

You can calculate your maximum heart rate (MHR) by subtracting your age from 220. For example, if you’re 45 years old, subtract 45 from 220 to get an MHR of 175. This is the average maximum number of times your heart should beat per minute during exercise.

The general recommendations are a target heart rate of 50% to 70% of your MHR for moderate exercise intensity and 70% to 85% of your MHR for vigorous exercise intensity.

Bear in mind that if you’re not fit or you’re just beginning an exercise program, aim for the lower end of your target heart rate zone. Then, gradually build up the intensity. If you’re healthy and want to exercise at a vigorous intensity, opt for the higher end of the zone.

How to determine your target heart rate zone

Use an online calculator to determine your desired target heart rate zone, or work it out yourself here! If you’re aiming for a target heart rate in the vigorous range of 70% to 85%, you can use the heart rate reserve (HRR) method below to calculate it. The two pieces of information you will need are your age and your resting heart rate (take a measurement at rest first thing in the morning).

  1. Subtract your age from 220 to get your max heart rate (MHR).
  2. Subtract your resting heart rate from your max heart rate to get your heart rate reserve (HRR)
  3. Multiply your HRR by 0.7 (70%) then add your resting heart rate.
  4. Multiply your HRR by 0.85 (85%) then add your resting heart rate.
  5. This gives you your average target heart rate zone for vigorous exercise intensity.

For example, if you are 45 and your resting heart rate is 60 bpm.

  1. 220 – 45 = 175 (MHR)
  2. 175 – 60 = 110 (HRR)
  3. (110 * 0.7 = 77) + 60 = 137
  4. (110 * 0.85 = 93.5) + 60 = 153.5
  5. Your target heart rate zone for vigorous exercise is 137 to 154 bpm
Target heart rate tips

It’s important to note that maximum heart rate is only a guide. You may have a higher or lower maximum heart rate, sometimes by as much as 15 to 20 beats per minute. If you want a more specific range, consider discussing your target heart rate zone with an exercise physiologist or a personal trainer.

If you are using medication to lower blood pressure, this can lower your maximum heart rate, and as a result lower your target heart rate zone. It is always best to ask your doctor about exercising if you are on medication or have a medical condition.

Interestingly, research shows that interval training, which includes short bouts (around 15 to 60 seconds) of higher intensity exercise alternated with longer, less strenuous exercise throughout your workout, is well tolerated. It’s even safe for those with heart disease and type 2 diabetes. This type of training is also very effective at increasing your cardiovascular fitness and promoting weight loss.

Reap the rewards of exercise intensity

You’ll get the most from your workouts if you’re exercising at the proper exercise intensity for your health and fitness goals. If you’re not feeling any exertion or your heart rate is too low, pick up the pace. If you’re worried that you’re pushing yourself too hard or your heart rate is too high, back off a bit.

Before starting a vigorous exercise program, you may want to talk with your doctor. He or she may suggest that you have certain tests first. This may be the case for people who have diabetes or more than one risk factor for heart disease, and for men over age 45 and women over age 55.

 

(the majority of content comes from this very handy article at mayoclinic.org)

04/02/2021