February is American Heart Month, and so we’re focusing on your heart through many of our writings and online challenges this month.  Today I wanted to write about exercise intensity, in conjunction with our Feel the Beat challenge offered through our MUS Wellness Incentive Program. The American Heart Association‘s most recent exercise guidelines are a little more specific than the old traditional 30 minutes a day recommendations.

The new guidelines remind us that a portion (at least 75 minutes a week) of our total exercise (at least 150 minutes a week) should be done at moderate to vigorous intensity levels. Fortunately, there are several ways to measure how intense your exercise is.

First, it’s important to note that intensity is subjective, not absolute. It’s a very individual metric, so learning how to measure how hard you’re exercising is an acquired skill. At the same time, it’s also pretty intuitive. Exercise intensity is affected by age, fitness level, exercise/training history, exercise type, plus individual differences in physical traits and genetics. That being said, let’s talk about a couple of simple ways to measure intensity.

  1. A Simple Perceived Exertion Scale.  I usually use a scale of 1-10.  1 equals sitting on the sofa—no work.  10 equals MUST STOP NOW OR I WILL COLLAPSE!  A 10 would be maximal effort, like a 100 meter dash.  Under these terms, we’ll spend most of our time exercising somewhere between a 4 and 9.  Values of 4 to 5 can be sustained for a long time (low intensity).  Values of 6 to 7 can be sustained for a moderate amount of time depending on your fitness level (moderate intensity).  Values of 8 and 9 can only be sustained briefly (very intense or hard).
  2. The talk test.  If you are doing cardio exercise with a partner, can you freely hold a conversation?  If so, you are exercising at a light intensity.  If you can communicate, but with shorter sentences and a lot of breathing in between, you are exercising at a moderate to moderately high intensity.  If you cannot hold a conversation because it’s all you can do to breathe, you are exercising at a pretty high intensity.
  3. Heart Rate.  This is the best measure.  Your heart doesn’t lie.  When you’re working hard, it’s working hard.  When it’s taking it easy, you’re taking it easy.  To measure HR you can buy a heart rate monitor, or utilize the HR monitors built into most modern indoor cardio equipment (although this isn’t as reliable as a monitor you wear).  Don’t have access to a HR monitor?  No problem, just do it the old-fashioned way and find your pulse at your wrist or neck.  Count your heartbeat for 15 seconds and multiply the number by 4.  We’ll talk more in-depth about how to utilize HR in an upcoming post. Step #1 is to become aware of your heart rate values both at rest and during various levels of exercise intensity.

Within this context, our initial goal would be to aim for at least 75 minutes a week of exercise at a 6 or higher (if using the scale), or at a level where we wouldn’t be having an easy conversation with our exercise partner.  Again, we’ll delve more into HR later.

Also, we’ll talk about why this matters in upcoming posts. But I can sum it up by saying that a blend of exercise intensities (light/moderate/vigorous) over the course of your week, is very beneficial for your body and mind in an astounding variety of ways. Keep in mind that the 75 minute goal lies within the overall goal/recommendation of 150 minutes of total exercise per week, which includes lower intensity efforts.

More to come..more to come. If you can’t wait, you can hit rewind and check out a post about exercise intensity I wrote a couple of years ago—it’s still relevant and it covers a little more ground.

If you’re newer to all this exercise stuff, don’t get geeked out about all the science. If you’re a veteran, please, by all means, get geeked out by the science.  No matter which camp you fall into, just keep in mind that this is about awareness more than anything. Above all, enjoy what you do, and remember that something is always better than nothing!



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