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Today there’s a gadget to monitor every level of fitness. You can Fitbit, mapmyrun, jawbone or choose from dozens of other devices and apps that provide a variety of information. While these gadgets are fun and offer some important insights into your your workout and fitness level, you may be one of many people who don’t want to bother with the extra “stuff.” If this is you, know that that are a number of low-tech way to effectively monitor your exercise intensity in order to ensure that it’s both safe and effective.

If calculated correctly a target heart can be a very simple yet effective tool to guide your exercise intensity

Target Heart Rate

Your heart rate is both a simple and effective way to measure exercise intensity. A target heart rate is nothing more than a range from low to high where your heart rate should be during exercise. If calculated correctly a target heart range can be a very simple yet effective tool to guide your exercise intensity.

To calculate your target heart range, we can use this formula: the number 220 minus your age. This gives you your age predicted maximum heart rate, or APMHR. From there you can multiply your APMHR by various percentages to provide you the best range within which to exercise. For example, a 40-year-old male would look like this: 220-40=180 beats per minute for his APMHR. You can then multiply 180 by .5 and .8 to give you a large target heart rate of 90-144 beats per minute.

More simply, the formula is: 220-40=180, 180x.5=90 and 180x.8=144

While it’s true this formula is far from perfect because it doesn’t take into account personal details such as fitness level, medical history or disability, it does give you an estimate of where your heart rate should be during exercise and where you can begin. To narrow this range even more, you can adjust those range points of .5 and .8 to become more specific for your current fitness level. The American College of Sports Medicine suggests the following ranges for each level of desired exercise intensity:

  • Light (35-54%)
  • Moderate (55-69%)
  • Heavy (70-89%)
  • Very Heavy (>90%)

The idea here is to “prove” yourself at one level of intensity before moving to another. It is always advisable to start light and work your way towards higher levels of intensity over time as your fitness improves. One word of caution, if you take heart or blood pressure medication, some of these medications may affect your heart rate making these target heart rate estimates very inaccurate. If this is the case, as always, consult with your physician for help with your exercise heart rate goals.

Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE)

Another method of monitoring your exercise intensity, and one of my favorites, is the RPE or BORG Scale. This wonderful scale prioritizes how you “feel” without any external intervention. The scale below is simply your interpretation of how difficult your activity or exercise feels to you. So when you are walking, cycling or swimming you can just ask yourself how difficult does this exercise feel? A typical target-training zone is an RPE of 11-14. (as indicated in the below chart) If you are walking and your RPE is a 17, you may want to decrease your intensity to lower your RPE into the target zone. Likewise if your RPE on the walk is an 8, you may want to consider, if possible, increasing your exercise intensity slightly to move towards the target zone.

RPE Scale

The Talk Test

The talk test is a tried and true method for evaluating exercise intensity. When you’re exercising, are you able to carry on a conversation? If you can carry on a long-winded conversation easily without skipping a beat, it’s most likely your exercise intensity is too light. Another example of this that you shouldn’t be able to sing a song or recite the entire pledge of allegiance without stopping.

If you find yourself having difficulty responding during a conversation due to heavy breathing, it is likely your exercise intensity is too heavy and you may want to slow down or decrease the intensity. During an appropriate exercise session you should be able to carry on a basic conversation yet that may not be your priority.

These three methods for evaluating exercise intensity are fairly simple to use without the need for additional technology. They take into account your “feelings” about exercise and provide in- the -moment responses about exercise intensity. If you’re looking to get started with exercise these are also uncomplicated methods to monitor your exercise intensity so you’re not overwhelmed. As always, please check with your physician before beginning any exercise program.

How do you monitor your exercise intensity and why do you find monitoring exercise intensity valuable?




Contributed by

Phil Hardesty
Exercise Physiologist

Have a healthy, happy and fit week!!

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