Why Exercise Intensely?

Why measure how hard you exercise, a.k.a., exercise intensity?

What is exercise intensity?

No, it isn’t how many times per week you exercise (that is called, exercise frequency).  Exercise intensity is how much effort you put into a single workout.  On the one hand, too easy of a workout makes it much more difficult to reach specific fitness goals.  On the other, exercising too hard for your level may inflict injury.  So what’s right?

Pacing the workout

According to Dr. Adrian Hutber of the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), the best way to pace a workout is to keep the heart rate in a “training or target zone,” based on maximum heart rate.  Maximum heart rate (MHR) is 220 minus your current age.   No need to train at MHR the entire workout — that is too hard to sustain anyway, since the body is training anaerobically (without oxygen) at MHR.

Staying at your target zone

The target zone will vary by the intensity of a workout. Keeping the heart rate in the target zone means reaching a percentage of your max and sticking to that range for the entire workout.  For example, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a moderate-intensity workout is when the target heart rate is 50 to 70 percent of MHR.  A vigorous workout is in the range of 70 to 85 percent of MHR.  If a 25 year old is looking to get in 30 minutes of hard work, he or she may be looking at a heart rate that stays between 136 to 166 beats per minute for the entire workout.

Measuring exercise intensity without a heart rate monitor

Don’t have a heart-rate monitor?  No problem.  Here are some ways to figure out the training zone in which you’re exercising:

1. The “sing-talk test” – estimates whether or not you are working out at a moderate-intensity.  The sing-talk test is when you can have a normal conversation with yourself (weird!) or the stranger next to you (weirder!) but not be able to sing.   If you can neither sing nor talk, you are working out at a vigorous intensity.  If you can sing and talk normally, this means you are hardly working out at a moderate intensity.

2. Cardio machine HR – provide your correct age to a treadmill, bike, elliptical, or other cardio machine and the sensors should give an accurate reading of your heart rate.   Although not as accurate as a HR monitor, it provides a general understanding of where you are at any given time during the workout.

3. Pulse test – check a heart rate at any point in the workout by taking a pulse at your wrist for 15 seconds — then multiply that number by four to calculate beats per minute.

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