The key to an effective workout is not what exercises you choose, but the intensity at which you perform those exercises. You have to challenge your body in a way that makes it uncomfortable to initiate change. To get the best results, moderate to high intensity is where you want to aim- but what does that mean?

There are 3 ways to gauge exercise intensity and make sure you are working out hard enough to get results.

1) The Talk Test

The talk test is the easiest way to tell how hard you're working. Your muscles require more oxygen when you are exercising- the harder you are working, the harder you will breathe to meet that demand. You only have to answer one question: can I talk?

  • Low intensity: You can carry on a conversation, in full sentences, without much effort. HINT: if you can sing or carry on a long conversation, talk on your phone or take a selfie, you aren't working hard enough.
  • Moderate intensity: You can speak in short sentences, but you don't want to. You don't want to be struggling to breathe, but moderate intensity exercise will have you breathing hard to the point that full sentences call for too much oxygen.
  • High Intensity: You can maybe squeak out a one word answer, or maybe you can't talk at all. You're breathing extremely heavy, gasping for air. This is intensity is great for short spurts, like when during intervals, but you don't want to maintain this intensity for long.

2) Rating of Perceived Exertion (RPE)

This one is easy, too- if you're honest. Ask yourself, on a scale of 1-10, how hard are you working?

  • Low Intensity: Your answer is 1-4. This is a great range if you're warming up, but if you're in the middle of your workout, kick it up a notch.
  • Moderate Intensity: Your answer is 5-7. This is the sweet spot.
  • High Intensity: 8-10. A great range for high intensity intervals that you can only maintain for 30 seconds max.

3) Heart Rate

The first two are subjective, but your heart rate is the true test of intensity. Wear a heart rate monitor so you don't have to stop and take your pulse every 5 minutes. Generally, you want to work within 65 to 85 percent of your maximum heart rate. Maximum heart rate is calculated by subtracting your age from 220. These are all general numbers- always talk to your doctor and always go by how you feel.

  • Low Intensity: If your heart rate during exercise is close to your resting heart rate, your workout is the equivalent to sitting on a the couch. 
  • Moderate Intensity: 65% of your maximum heart rate. This is enough to elicit change, but is on the lower end. Aiming to not drop below 65% is a good benchmark for your whole workout.
  • High Intensity: 85% of your maximum heart rate. If you're in good shape, you can get closer to your max heart rate, or even hit it, without worry that you'll have a heart attack, but staying there will be impossible. Shoot for 85% during short high intensity spikes, but don't try to maintain that heart rate.

by Kelly Turner

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