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 work out, 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 overdoing or even underdoing it. Here's a look at what exercise intensity means and how to make it work for you.

Choosing your exercise intensity

How do you know how hard you should be exercising? For most healthy adults, the Department of Health and Human Services recommends these exercise guidelines:

  • 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, preferably spread throughout the course of a week.
  • Strength training. Do strength training exercises 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.

To reap the most health benefits from exercise, your exercise intensity must generally be at a moderate or vigorous level. For weight loss, the more intense your exercise, or the longer you exercise, the more calories you burn.

However, balance is important. Overdoing it can increase your risk of soreness, injury and burnout. If you're new to regular exercise and physical activity, you may need to start out at a light intensity and gradually build up to a moderate or vigorous intensity.

So think about 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 project, not a sprint. Of course, if you have any medical conditions or you're not sure what your exercise intensity should be, talk to your doctor.

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 also is reflected 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 correlates well with your heart rate. So if you think you're working hard, your heart rate is likely elevated.

You can use either way of gauging exercise intensity. If you like technology and care about the numbers, 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.

Feb. 05, 2014 See more In-depth

Products and Services

  1. Book: The Mayo Clinic Diet