You know that not all exercise levels are the same. An elderly man casually strolling down the block is not exerting as much energy or using as much muscle as the Olympic sprinter next to him trying to set a personal best.
Intensity is an important variable to consider in all of your workout regimens, whether your primary goal is weight loss, strength building, or something else. But what is the right intensity for your exercise, and how can you be sure you’re achieving that level?
Defining Exercise “Intensity”
Intensity refers to the amount of physical exertion demanded by a physical activity. The more inactivity challenges you, and the harder your body has to work to achieve it, the more intense it is.
Because this is such a subjective concept, it’s important to use objective metrics to determine how intensely you’re exercising. There are several possible ways to do this:
- Target heart rate. One message is to determine your maximum heart rate, then measure your heart rate while you’re exercising to determine the intensity of your activity. Your maximum heart rate is roughly 220 beats per minute (bpm) minus your age, though be aware that this may change based on a variety of personal factors, and you should talk to your doctor about what an appropriate maximum heart rate is for you. For most people and most goals, an ideal target heart rate range is between 50 and 70 percent of your maximum heart rate. For example, if you’re 20 years old, your maximum heart rate should be 200 beats per minute, and your target range should be between 100 and 140 beats per minute. During exercise, you can use a heart rate monitor or simply feel your pulse to determine your current heart rate.
- The talk test. If you’re looking for something simpler and more intuitive, you can use what’s known as the “talk test.” During your exercise, attempt to speak as if you were speaking to someone else, then try to sing a few lines of a song. If you can sing easily and carry on a conversation with no issues, you’re not exercising intensely enough. If you can’t manage to speak at all because you’re so winded, you’re exercising too intensely. If you can manage to speak with a little bit of effort, but it’s tough to sing, you’re in the sweet spot.
- Personal exertion. Once you have a bit of exercise experience, you should be able to gauge your level of intensity based on what you’re feeling and how much effort you’re spending. If you’re breathing hard and sweating, you’ve achieved at least moderate intensity. If you’re seriously struggling in many different ways, you should probably scale back your effort.
What Exercise Intensity Is Appropriate?
Which exercise intensity is appropriate for you?
On some level, more intense exercise is more valuable, since it’s more challenging. But different levels of intensity are appropriate for different applications and different people.
- Minimal intensity. Minimal intensity exercise, where you’re barely spending any effort, is usually only appropriate if you’re being rehabilitated, or if you’re just starting to exercise after a very long period of living a sedentary lifestyle.
- Low intensity. Low intensity exercise is perfect for warming up and cooling down, giving your muscles a chance to acclimate to the changes in your activity levels. It’s also great for elderly people trying to stay active and people facing health conditions that preclude them from exercising at higher levels of intensity.
- Medium intensity. Medium intensity working out is ideal if you’re trying to maximize your cardiovascular benefits with an exercise like jogging or biking. It allows you to challenge yourself while still allowing you to continue the exercise for prolonged periods of time.
- High intensity. High intensity exercise is great for building muscle and burning a lot of calories at once, but it must be done in short bursts, rather than extended sessions. That’s one reason why high intensity interval training (HIIT) requires you to alternate between different intensity levels throughout your workout.
Variables That Complicate Exercise Intensity
Of course, we’ve been simplifying the topic of exercise intensity to some degree. There are several variables that can complicate this discussion, and they all require your attention.
- Current fitness level. If you’re a seasoned athlete who’s used to working out, you should push yourself a little further than someone who hasn’t exercised in years. The less experience you have and the worse shape you’re in, the more cautious you should be.
- Age and overall health. You should also think about your age and your overall health. The older you get, the more cautious you should be, and the lower your exercise intensity should be.
- Heat and weather. High heat and other extreme weather conditions can exacerbate some of the problems of working out too hard. If you’re trying to work out during the heatwave, consider ratcheting down the intensity of your exercise.
- Nutrition and hydration. How you eat and drink can also affect exertion; if you’re not drinking enough water, excessive exercise intensity could cause you to pass out.
- Other health conditions. Certain health conditions, like heart disease, should be treated with caution; you may need to artificially cap your exercise intensity to protect yourself.
This is one reason why it’s so important to talk to your doctor about exercise intensity before beginning a new regimen.
Signs of Inadequate Intensity
Generally speaking, these are some of the signs that you’re not working out hard enough:
- Lack of challenge.
- No sweat or heavy breathing.
- Having an easy time singing.
Signs of Excessive Intensity
and these are some signs that you’re working out too hard:
- Inability to catch breath.
- Poor coordination.
- Excessive heart rate.
Exercise intensity is hard to measure, especially if you’re new to the world of working out. That’s one reason it’s so valuable to have a personal trainer at your side; they’ll be able to help you gauge the intensity of your exercise and guide you to healthier workout habits.
If you’re interested in maximizing the benefits of your exercise routine, or if you have serious fitness goals that you want to hit, reach out to me today and let’s have a conversation!
Nathan DeMetz holds degrees in Exercise Science, Business Administration, and Information Technology as well as certifications in strength and conditioning, sports nutrition, run coaching, and other areas. His credentials come from organizations such as Indiana Wesleyan University, Ivy Tech College, Utah State University, and the ISSA College of Exercise Science.
Nathan has 20 years of personal and professional experience in the health and fitness world. He works with people from across the globe, including locations such as Kuwait, Australia, and the USA.
To work with Nathan directly on your personal training goals, contact him today!