How to Measure Your Exercise Intensity

Your fitness routine has likely changed over the past year. With some gyms closed and minimal access to classes or personal training, it’s important to be more aware of all aspects of your training. Today, let’s talk about how to effectively measure your exercise intensity.

Monitoring workout intensity can help you stay safe and get the most out of your routine.

The American College of Sports Medicine recommends adults get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week. This can be broken up into 30-60 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise 5 days per week. You can also do 20-60 minutes of vigorous-intensity exercise 3 days per week, or a combination of both.

Understanding how to monitor your exercise intensity is important regardless of your fitness level. Also, there are dozens of external monitoring devices (i.e. heart rate monitors, etc.) that track this information. They make it easy to access the data throughout your workout and beyond.

As always, prior to beginning any exercise program, please consult your physician.

The Talk Test

Have you ever heard of the “Talk Test”? It’s when you know that you’re doing moderate-intense exercises when you can talk, but not sing. When you’re doing vigorously intense exercises, you will not be able to say more than a few words between breaths.

Range of Perceived Exertion (RPE)

RPE is a scale of 1-10, with “one” describing a rest level exertion, such as sitting and relaxing. A “10” describes exhaustive level exertion, such as sprinting uphill all out.  If you’re able to carry on a continuous conversation, you’re probably at an RPE intensity level of 1-2. If you’re able to converse, but are having to take a breath every sentence or so, then you are probably exerting at an RPE intensity level of 2-3 which is light to moderate exertion. And so on…

Most physical fitness trainers state that your ideal workout goal should probably be at 5 RPE, which is somewhat hard to heavy exertion. You shouldn’t be able to carry on a conversation, but be able to answer questions in short sentences. If you’re unable to answer a question with a one-word answer, such as “yes” or “no”, then you’re working too hard. You never want to get to a point where you’re winded or breathless (that’s an RPE intensity between 8-10).

Assess Your Heart Rate

This is most effective when you use a heart rate monitor, such as an iWatch or FitBit, to gauge how fast your heart beats at different stages of your workout. You can also measure this on your own immediately after you finish a workout. In general, the higher your heart rate during physical activity, the higher the exercise intensity.

To use this method, you first have to figure out your maximum heart rate — the upper limit of what your cardiovascular system can handle during physical activity.

You can calculate your maximum heart rate by subtracting your age from 220. For example, if you’re 45 years old, subtract 45 from 220 to get a maximum heart rate of 175. This is the average maximum number of times your heart should beat per minute during exercise. If you’re curious, Active has a great heart rate calculator.

Once you know your maximum heart rate, you can calculate your desired target heart rate zone — the level at which your heart is being exercised and conditioned but not overworked.

The American Heart Association generally recommends a target heart rate for moderate exercise intensity should be 50% to about 70% of your maximum heart rate. For vigorous exercise intensity, it should be 70% to about 85% of your maximum heart rate. If you’re not fit or you’re just beginning an exercise program, aim for the lower end of your target heart rate zone. Then, gradually build up the intensity. If you’re healthy and want to exercise at a vigorous intensity, opt for the higher end of the zone.


You’ll get the most from your workouts if you’re exercising at the proper exercise intensity for your health and fitness goals. If you’re not feeling any exertion or your heart rate is too low, pick up the pace. When you push yourself too hard, back off a bit.

Curious about new workouts to get your heart racing? I recommend checking out “Circuit Training Workout for Beginners“.

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