Fitness Articles

Reference Guide to Exercise Intensity

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

793SHARES
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 ›
793SHARES

Advertisement -- Learn more about ads on this site.

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

  • 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
  • Frankly I find the math of all of this very hard to take there has to be an easier way. I do have a heart rate monitor but every time i wear it i react to it. No matter how much I clean it. I am reluctant to buy another one because it will likely happen aagain. Pat in Maine.
    I love most of the articles I read but the complcations using metric and standard just confuse the old head. - 4/30/2012 7:55:28 AM
  • sorry, correction:
    (60%-80%)
    for the first method 96-128
    for second: 118-139

    That's still a difference of 11-12 BPM, which is a big difference! - 4/25/2012 3:13:25 PM
  • Did anyone notice that the target heart rate for the same 40 year old woman was way less at moderate (60%) level in the first example than 50% (easier level) in the second????????

    SOMETHING is way off here! Figuring out my own rate, as a 60 year old with a RHR of 56, and who walks steadily, most days for over an hour) with the first calculation I get (for the 60-80%range) 107-128 BPM as Target. This matches what I FEEL when walking (in my aerobic walks I average 97-116, MAXIMUM 125).
    In the second, I get a whooping 118 minimum, up to 138 for 80% What I can't fiqure out is why the second method, which takes heart rate into account, I would expect to have a LOWER result (as my heart rate is low....).
    - 4/25/2012 2:43:43 PM
  • ANNAKTHOMPSON
    This is a great article! I'm not one that the THR works for--my resting heart rate is very high, and according to my doctor if I worked at my THR according to those formulas I'd likely suffer from cardiac arrest. So no thanks. I do, however, use the talk test when I workout. I'm hoping that eventually my resting HR will be more normal as I continue exercising. - 4/19/2012 3:10:54 AM
  • This is from the article. "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. "

    I'm not a doctor but I am 70 yrs. old and deal with a knee problem that keeps me from getting my pulse above 20%. After months of walking my blood pressure (rarely above normal) goes down a little and my resting pulse goes down. Only time will tell if it will get you off the meds but if you don't walk you will likely stay on the meds. - 1/12/2012 11:31:35 AM
  • Ok so here's "dumbass" with the question nobody wants to ask - I have controlled high blood pressure - what do I use for a target HR and is it possible to help me get off the meds? - 1/10/2012 8:50:26 PM
Popular Calories Burned Searches: Biking/Cycling: 26-31 km/h (2.3 minutes per km - 1.9 minutes per km)  |  Biking/Cycling: > 32 km/h (1.8 minutes per km)  |  Running: 20 km/h (3 minutes per km)

x Lose 10 Pounds by December 5! Get a FREE Personalized Plan