Exercise intensity: How to measure it

Get the most from your workouts by knowing how to gauge your exercise intensity.

By Mayo Clinic Staff

When you exercise, are you working hard or hardly working? Exercising at the correct intensity can help you get the most out of your physical activity — making sure you're not pushing too hard or too little. Here's a look at what exercise intensity means, and how to maximize your workout.

Choosing your exercise intensity

How hard should you be exercising? The Department of Health and Human Services recommends these exercise guidelines for most healthy adults:

  • Aerobic activity. Get at least 150 minutes a week of moderate aerobic activity — such as brisk walking, swimming or mowing the lawn — or 75 minutes a week of vigorous aerobic activity — such as running or aerobic dancing. You can also do a combination of moderate and vigorous activity. It's best to do this over the course of a week.
  • Strength training. Strength train at least twice a week. Consider free weights, weight machines or activities that use your own body weight — such as rock climbing or heavy gardening. The amount of time for each session is up to you.

Your exercise intensity must generally be at a moderate or vigorous level for maximum benefit. For weight loss, the more intense or longer your activity, the more calories you burn.

Balance is still important. Overdoing it can increase your risk of soreness, injury and burnout. Start at a light intensity if you're new to exercising. Gradually build up to a moderate or vigorous intensity.

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 what your exercise intensity should be.

Understanding exercise intensity

When you're doing aerobic activity, such as walking or biking, 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.

There are two basic ways to measure exercise intensity:

  • How you feel. Exercise intensity is a subjective measure of how hard physical activity feels to you while you're doing it — your perceived exertion. Your perceived level of exertion may be different from what someone else feels doing the same exercise. For example, what feels to you like a hard run can feel like an easy workout to someone who's more fit.
  • 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.

Studies show that your perceived exertion compares well with your heart rate. So if you think you're working hard, your heart rate is probably higher than usual.

You can use either way of gauging exercise intensity. If you like technology, a heart rate monitor might be a useful device for you. If you feel you're in tune with your body and your level of exertion, you likely will do fine without a monitor.

Gauging intensity by how you feel

Here are some clues 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.
Sept. 03, 2016 See more In-depth