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You may have heard that you need to exercise at a moderate intensity level to see results, but how do you define “moderate” and how do you know when you’re there?

Understanding Intensity

Exercise intensity refers to how much work is being done during exercise. Intensity level is the key to efficient exercise. Your intensity level will determine how much oxygen your body uses during exercise and how many calories you burn.

Intensity level is an individual measurement—what feels challenging to one person may feel easy to another. These differences are based on fitness levels, size, strength, and genetics. Don’t rely on a piece of exercise equipment to tell you the intensity level of your exercise. Instead, learn to identify and monitor intensity for yourself.

Choosing an Intensity Level

Learning to monitor and adjust your intensity levels accordingly is the best way to improve your fitness. Exercise does not always have to be intense to be effective; there are reasons to exercise at different intensity levels at different times. Whoever coined the phrase “no pain, no gain,” was wrong; you do not have to experience pain to experience fitness gains.

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In general, it is best to spend the majority of exercise time at a moderate intensity level. Low intensity exercise is valuable for building endurance and recovering, but if you spend too much time exercising at a low intensity level, you may not see improvements in fitness or weight loss. High intensity exercise is valuable for increasing our aerobic threshold, but we need to spend very little time here. If you spend too much time exercising at a high intensity level, you run the risk of injury and overtraining.

Opt for middle ground—exercise should be challenging, but not impossible. Choose effort, not struggle. Often, people who are exercising every day, but seeing zero results need only to increase their intensity level to see changes in their fitness and their body.

Monitoring Your Intensity Level

Aside from the fact that you’ll be sweating and breathing harder, how do you know if you are exercising at a moderate intensity level? It may take a little practice, but you can learn to identify what a moderate intensity level feels like. Remember, you don’t want exercise to feel easy, but you also don’t want it to feel challenging beyond your limits. Here are three ways to find a moderate intensity level:

  • Talk Test: The talk test is a subjective way of measuring intensity level. If you can utter brief sentences, but cannot sing a song, you are probably exercising at a moderate intensity level. If you need to take a breath between every word you say, you are working too hard. Conversely, if you can talk in complete paragraphs or feel like you could belt out a rendition of your favorite song, you need to step it up.
  • Rate of Perceived Exertion: Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) is another subjective tool for measuring intensity level. RPE is an individualized scale ranging from 1-10 that allows you to rate how you feel during exercise. Often, you will see the RPE chart posted in gyms or fitness studios. (See chart below.) Healthy adults are should aim for an RPE of 5-7 in order to achieve a moderate intensity level.
  • Heart Rate Monitor: A heart rate monitor is an invaluable tool for providing precise information regarding your heart rate and exertion level. Many people refer to their “target heart zone” as the heart rate range in which they are exercising moderately. Determining your target heart zone will help ensure that you exercise at the proper intensity level every time. (Learn more at Finding Your Zone.)

Get Intense

Intensity level is the key to exercising right. There is a whole lot of science behind it, but it really doesn’t have to be complicated. Just remember—work hard, sweat, breathe hard and opt for effort, not struggle. Good luck!