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How can I measure the intensity of my exercise?

William B. Salt II., MD
Gastroenterology
Either purchase a fitness monitor or learn how to take your own pulse rate and exercise at least sixty percent of your maximum heart rate (which varies based upon age). You can exercise harder with higher heart rate and derive even greater fitness benefits. However, you should probably consult with your doctor and/or fitness professional before exercising significantly above sixty percent of maximum heart rate.
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There are several ways to measure the intensity of exercise. The most popular way is to assess heart rate. During exercise, take 15 seconds and count your pulse rate. Multiple that number by 4 to get your current heart rate. The higher your heart rate the more intense the exercise is.  Considering that your max heart rate is 220-age, the close your measured heart rate is to your max the more intense the exercise is. For example, if your max heart rate is 185 (220-age(35)) and your measured heart rate is 165 beats per minute you are working at a higher intensity than if your heart rate was 140 beats per minute.

Another method is RPE or rating of perceived exertion. This is a simple scale of which you can point on a line to provide a guesstimate for how intense you are working. This scale can be found on the internet and is useful.

Edward Phillips
Physical Therapy
Intensity measures how hard you work during an exercise. Pay attention to objective physiological cues like breathing, talking, and sweating, or you can measure intensity subjectively through perceived exertion.

Here are cues to help you measure intensity of various activities, including walking:

If the intensity is light, exercise feels easy: You are breathing easily; warming up, but not yet sweating; able to talk—or even sing an aria if you have a talent.

If the intensity is light to moderate, you're working, but not too hard: You are breathing easily; sweating lightly; still finding it easy to talk or sing.

If the intensity is moderate, you're working: You are breathing faster; starting to sweat more; able to talk, not able to sing.

If the intensity is moderate to high, you're really working: You are huffing and puffing; sweating; able to talk in short sentences, but concentrating more on exercise than conversation.

If the intensity is high, you're working very hard, almost out of gas: You are
breathing hard; sweating hard; finding talking difficult.

Here's how various intensity levels of aerobic exercise feel:

Light intensity: You're not working hard enough to raise your heart rate much and can probably sing a song without having to pause for a breath. Light activities count toward your overall increase in physical activity but don't count toward your aerobic activity goal.

  • Examples: leisurely walking, gardening, housework

Moderate intensity: You're working hard enough to raise your heart rate and break a sweat but are usually still able to carry on a conversation while exercising.

  • Examples: brisk walking, water aerobics, doubles tennis
Vigorous intensity: You're breathing hard and fast, your heart rate is up quite a bit, and you're probably too winded to carry on a conversation while exercising.
  • Examples: jogging or running, swimming laps, singles tennis
To measure the intensity of your exercise you should measure your heart rate. Aerobic exercise can be low, moderate or high intensity. To determine your goal heart rate at these levels you must first determine your maximum heart rate, which is 220 minus your age. Once you have determined your maximum heart rate, 50 to 70% of your maximum heart rate is the target for moderate intensity exercise, and 70-85% is the target for vigorous intensity. If you are not used to working out, you may want to shoot for the lower end and gradually work up to the higher end.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.