You’re working out at the gym and eating a healthy diet in hopes of losing a few pounds. You spend 30 minutes four times a week walking briskly on the treadmill and cycling on the exercise bike, but somewhere in the back of your mind you wonder whether you’re working out hard enough. After all, you want to get the full benefits of your exercise program. Is there a way to measure exercise intensity – and how hard you’re working?
Measuring Exercise Intensity by Monitoring Your Body
You don’t need fancy equipment to measure exercise intensity at the gym. Start by paying attention to the signals your body is sending you.
If you’re a beginner and working out at a low intensity, you should be able to talk in complete sentences and carry on a conversation without difficulty. At this level of intensity, you could belt out a song, although this isn’t a good idea if you’re exercising in a crowded gym. At this lighter intensity, you’re breathing at a normal rate and not breaking a sweat.
If you increase the pace to a moderate intensity, your breathing becomes faster, but you can still carry on a conversation, although singing a song would be too challenging. After fifteen minutes at this intensity, you would expect to be sweating and feel some degree of fatigue.
When you pick up the pace and enter the high intensity zone, your breathing becomes noticeably more rapid, and you’re unable to speak in complete sentences. In fact, it’s a challenge to say more than a few words, and you’re sweating profusely, especially if you’re exercising in a warm environment.
Another Way to Measure Exercise Intensity Using Your Heart Rate
Another simple way to measure exercise intensity is to use your heart rate as a guide. First, calculate your maximum heart rate by subtracting your age from 220. For example, if you’re 40 years old, your maximum heart rate would be 180. Once you know this value, you can compare your exercising heart rate with your maximum heart rate to see how hard you’re working.
If you’re exercising at a light intensity, your heart rate should be somewhere between 40 to 50% of your maximum heart rate. At a moderate intensity, your heart rate will fall between 50 to 70% of maximum. If your heart rate is 70 to 85% of your maximum heart rate, you’re working out at a high intensity. And if you’re doing a high intensity interval workout or Tabata training, like in CrossFire or To The Max, your heart rate could easily be well over 90%. To check your heart rate, wear a heart rate monitor or simply count your pulse rate for 14 seconds, and multiply by 4. Then compare this to your maximum heart rate to get your percentage.
How Hard Should You Be Working Out?
Unless you’re a beginner, your goal should be to work out at a moderate intensity or greater. At this level, you’ll get cardiovascular training benefits, but you’ll burn even more calories if you train at a higher intensity. High intensity exercise will also elevate your metabolism even after you stop exercising.
Work up to a high intensity only after several weeks of doing low to moderate intensity exercise. You can also get the benefits of high intensity exercise by doing interval training where you do one minute of low intensity exercise followed by a minute of high intensity exercise – and alternate back and forth for 20 to 30 minutes.
The Bottom Line?
Now you have two easy ways to measure exercise intensity when you do your workouts. Use them to see how hard you’re working out – and to get better results.
Exercise Physiology. Seventh Edition. Powers and Howley. 2009.
Mayo Clinic. “Exercise Intensity: Why It Matters and How It’s Measured”