How hard should you exercise?

Exercising at the proper intensity will ensure you achieve health benefits without risking medical complications or injury.  There are several ways to monitor your exercise intensity.  Monitoring your target heart rate is the most common way of measuring exercise intensity but many people cannot use target heart rate because of certain health conditions or medications they are taking.  There are several other ways to monitor exercise intensity without using target heart rate.

Talk Test

To benefit from exercise you need to work hard enough that you are breathing harder than when you are resting.  If you find it difficult to say more than a few words you are working too hard.  There is no advantage to training at such a high intensity that you are gasping for air, in fact exercising at such a high intensity can be dangerous for some individuals.

Rating of Perceived Exertion Scale (RPE)

Rating how hard you find the exercise is another good way to know if you are exercising at the right intensity.  You can use the scales below to see if you are exercising at the right intensity for you.  As your fitness improves you will be able to exercise at a higher intensity but it will not feel as difficult.  For example, when you start you may find walking at 2 mph feels difficult or a 4.  After a few weeks of regular exercise you may find you can walk at 2.5 mph and it only feels like a moderate or a 3 level of intensity

Exercise in the 3 to 5 range.

0 No effort at all
1 Very light
2 Light
3 Moderate
4 Difficult
5 Heavy
7 Very heavy
10 Maximum effort

Rating of Perceived Breathlessness Scale (RPB)

Some people may be limited more by shortness of breath than overall fatigue. You can use this scale to determine how hard you should work based on how much shortness of breath you have. You should exercise in the 3 to 4 range.  Once again, after a few weeks of exercise you will find you can do more exercise at a lower RPB level.

0 No breathlessness at all
1 Very slight breathlessness
2 Slight breathlessness
3 Moderate breathlessness
4 Difficulty Breathing
5 Severe breathlessness
9 Very severe breathlessness
10 Maximum breathlessness

RPE /RBE. Start at 2 to 3. Progress to 3 to 4.

Examples of Light Intensity exercise.

  • Strolling
  • Exercise bike with no resistance or cycling on smooth, level ground
  • Golf, bowling, curling
  • Light water exercise

Examples of Moderate Intensity exercise.

  • Brisk walking up a small incline
  • Cycling with resistance or on hills
  • Swimming, water aerobics
  • Dancing with a fast tempo
  • Tennis

Examples of Vigorous Intensity exercise.

  • Brisk walking uphill
  • Running
  • Cycling with resistance or on hills
  • Swimming at a faster pace or water aerobics
  • Soccer, full court basketball