Fitness Articles

Reference Guide to Exercise Intensity

An In-Depth Look at Heart Rate, RPE and the Talk Test

816SHARES
One of the most common mistakes new exercisers make is not measuring the intensity of their cardio workouts. Guidelines say that aerobic exercise should be “moderate” or “challenging,” but what does that feel like? You might make the mistake of working too hard (which can lead to injury and burnout), or not working hard enough (which can lead to frustration from a lack of results).

When following an aerobic exercise program, there are three main ways to measure your exercise intensity: Target Heart Rate (THR), Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) and The Talk Test. This guide will examine each of these three measures in detail so you can choose which works best for you.

Target Heart Rate

Target Heart Rate (THR) is the most commonly used method for measuring exercise intensity—mostly because it’s easy to do and it’s also precise. Your THR is actually a zone or range that your heart rate should fall within to ensure that you are training aerobically. Training below your target zone may not be intense enough to burn sufficient calories or improve your cardiovascular fitness; while training above your zone means you’re working anaerobically (without oxygen) and inefficiently, which is also too intense for many people, especially beginners.

A Target Heart Rate range is listed in percentages, typically between about 60% and 85% of your maximum heart rate. But how hard you should work depends on your fitness level. In general, beginners should work at a lower range and advanced exercisers should work at a higher range. Keep in mind that some people have exercise restrictions due to injury, health conditions or medications that will affect your recommended intensity level, so always check with your doctor first.

Use the following as a guide for determining your intensity level:
  • Beginner or low fitness level: 50% to 60%
  • Intermediate or average fitness level: 60% to 70%
  • Advanced or high fitness level: 75% to 85%
When starting an exercise program, aim for the lowest part of your target heart rate zone (50 percent of your maximum) during the first few weeks. Gradually build up to the higher part of your target zone (75 percent). After six months or more of regular exercise, you may be able to exercise comfortably at up to 85 percent of your maximum heart rate. However, you don't have to exercise that hard to stay in shape.
Continued ›
Page 1 of 5   Next Page ›
816SHARES

More Great Features

Connect With SparkPeople

Subscribe to our Newsletters

About The Author

Jen Mueller Jen Mueller
Jen received her master's degree in health promotion and education from the University of Cincinnati. A mom and avid marathon runner, she is a certified personal trainer, certified health coach and advanced health & fitness specialist. See all of Jen's articles.

Member Comments

  • This was really excellent information, which really helps me a lot more than the general, often conflicting, info out there. Thanks too for the Target Heart Rate Calculator and link--that's really helpful! - 6/18/2015 5:41:16 PM
  • WENDYSIAN
    @BELDAME
    I can't stop laughing at your comment lolol
    Its really tickled me that. Fair play, what you say is very true mind! - 5/8/2015 2:12:55 PM
  • NJMSTAR
    I think the the standard formula for determining MHR is very inaccurate for many people. I bought a heart rate monitor thinking I must not be working hard enough because I never saw improvement in my fitness level. According to the formula I should be in defib at rates over 160, but I found that I was frequently in the low to mid 160's and felt fine. When I slow down to the 75 to 80% range it feels like nothing more than a casual stroll. Although I am in better shape than many my age (60), I would hardly be considered an athlete, just a slightly overweight housewife. - 4/11/2015 10:05:09 AM
  • "And what if you are walking 17 mph but it is all hills (up and down)"

    That's some pretty fast walking!!!

    My doctor told me to forget the calculations and heart monitor devices and let your body tell you (as long as you are pushing yourself).

    and basically, you know when you are pushing yourself when " you can answer a question, but not comfortably carry on a conversation."

    the most important thing here is I got my doctor's advice. - 2/24/2015 4:44:27 PM
  • "Using this method, the goal is to work at a level where you can answer a question, but not comfortably carry on a conversation."
    This should be printed on little laminated cards and affixed to every piece of exercise equipment at the gym, for the benefit of the chatty fatty workout buddies.
    Quit your yapping and get to work!! - 2/24/2015 8:54:15 AM
  • very informative and things I needed to know before I over do my exercises. - 2/7/2015 12:17:13 PM
  • Although I have read this article previously, there were many things I had forgotten. A great deal of useful information. - 7/7/2013 3:06:52 PM
  • I enjoyed this article so much and a lot tof the information I did not know. Thank you - 5/28/2013 8:07:53 AM
  • This article is very useful to me as I am on Beta blockers and I have actually been using the Perceived rate of exertion without knowing. I have come to know when I have to back off, usuallt if I start wheezing or whatever. Very useful article. Thank you. Oh, and I still have been able to improve my cardio capacity using this method! - 12/29/2012 1:49:01 PM
  • KANDIKAKE
    This article was very helpful - 11/8/2012 2:28:09 PM
  • Great article. I learned something new again. - 10/28/2012 5:13:58 PM
  • DOINITRIGHT2012
    great article. - 9/1/2012 5:07:19 PM
  • Great article. Thanks! - 7/27/2012 12:55:49 PM
  • HPSANDDOLLAR
    I learned something. - 6/10/2012 9:22:48 AM
  • And what if you are walking 17 mph but it is all hills (up and down) -- and fairly steep ones at that? I guess I have to use the perceived exertion scale. I am just not going to be doing any calculations on my heart rate. - 5/13/2012 6:12:12 PM

x Lose 10 Pounds by September 12! Get a FREE Personalized Plan