Fitness Articles

Reference Guide to Exercise Intensity

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

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How to Use Your Target Heart Rate Information
Once you have used either formula above to calculate your Target Heart Rate range (in beats per minute), you must try to keep your heart rate within your range during your cardio activity.

Periodically check your heart rate throughout your workout to gauge your intensity level. There are two ways to do this:
  1. Take your pulse after you’ve been exercising for at least five minutes. An easy way to check your pulse without interrupting your workout too much is to take a quick 6-second count and then multiply that number by 10 to get your heart rate in beats per minute. If your pulse is within your training heart rate zone, you’re right on track! If you notice you are lower than the minimum, increase your speed, incline and/or intensity and count again. If you notice you are very high, decrease your intensity in some way.
     
  2. Wear a heart rate monitor. This is the easiest way to monitor your intensity because it does all the work for you—all you have to do is look at a digital watch to see your current heart rate in beats per minute and/or percentages (i.e. 65%).
Additional Tips for Using Target Heart Rate
  • Your target heart rate (THR) range is an estimate, and it may not be the right exercise intensity for you. It’s based on a formula and not everyone fits into the average. Your THR may change over time as you become more fit too, so consider reevaluating your range every few months.
  • Some medications (such as beta-blockers) can affect your heart rate during exercise. An exerciser taking beta-blockers may be working at a high intensity but might never reach her target heart rate. Therefore, people on this or similar medications should not use the THR method (see RPE and Talk Test methods below).
  • Talk to your doctor to determine the best exercise intensity for you.
Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE)


Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) may be the most versatile method to measure exercise intensity for all age groups. Using this method is simple, because all you have to do is estimate how hard you feel like you’re exerting yourself during exercise. RPE is a good measure of intensity because it is individualized—it’s based on your current fitness level and overall perception of exercise. The scale ranges from 1 to 10, allowing you to rate how you feel physically and mentally at a given intensity level.


An RPE between 5 and 7 is recommended for most adults. This means that at the height of your workout, you should feel you are working “somewhat hard” to “hard.”
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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
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