Check Your Intensity
Ali Othman, NSCA-CPT®
It’s time for your workout. Get your gear, mind, and body ready, then choose your intensity. Exercise intensity is one of the most important aspects of your wellness routine, and applying the right intensity to each situation will boost your results. Understanding your body’s physiological response to exercise within each category will help you decide the level of intensity to bring to your workouts.
Exercise intensity can be classified into two categories. Moderate-intensity exercise means your breathing rate is slightly increased, but you can still carry on a conversation and sing along with your music. At this level, you’re at about sixty-five to seventy-five percent of your maximum heart rate. Moderate-intensity exercise is an excellent way to warm up your muscles, build endurance, improve balance, reduce the risk of injury and burnout, and increase your chances of maintaining an exercise program.
Moderate-intensity exercise improves mobility, increases cardiorespiratory health, aids in fat loss, and enhances a person’s mood. Some examples include yoga, bicycling, dancing, and walking. These exercises can be done with a partner and in a variety of settings. They’re generally regarded as safer activities, which makes them more sustainable. According to Mayo Clinic Staff, healthy adults should get 150 to 300 minutes a week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity.
Vigorous-intensity exercise typically means your breathing rate is increased to the point where it is difficult to maintain a conversation and impossible to sing. While doing vigorous- or high-intensity exercise, your heart rate ranges between seventy-five and ninety percent of its maximum. This category is meant for those familiar with exercise who understand their body’s response to higher stress levels.
Typical examples of vigorous-intensity exercises include soccer, basketball, sprinting, and stair climbing. This type of exercise has been shown to improve sleep quality, improve insulin levels, aid in weight loss, and increase cardiovascular health, among many other benefits. On the other hand, the heavier load means increased muscle soreness and more difficult sessions. Scheduling workouts and rest days appropriately is mandatory when you regularly exercise vigorously.
You might be leaning towards one or the other, but for most healthy adults, a combination of moderate-intensity and vigorous-intensity exercise is the best choice. Heart-rate training, or using your heart rate to measure your exercise intensity, is a great way to find a combination of intensities best suited to reaching your goals. You can calculate your average maximum heart rate by subtracting your age from 220.
Your body responds differently to exercises in each heart rate zone. If your goal is fat loss, you want to exercise at around seventy percent of your maximum heart rate for sixty-minute sessions, five days a week. At this level, exercise burns a steady supply of fuel, a lot of which is stored in body fat. To get the most benefit from moderate-intensity exercise, you should try to meet or exceed the recommended 300 minutes a week or work towards that as a short-term goal.
As the intensity increases, your heart beats faster, your body needs more oxygen, and its fuel source begins to change. At higher exercise intensities, oxygen is less readily available, so the body turns to carbohydrates as its major source of fuel. Here, the exercise burns more total calories, but a lower percentage are from fat. Since weight loss depends on a caloric deficit, vigorous-intensity exercise may offer bigger benefits to those looking to lose weight. Thirty-minute sessions three days a week at this intensity can be supplemented with an additional day or two of longer duration moderate-intensity exercise.
After a visit with a physician, healthy adults who are new to exercise should start with a moderate-intensity routine. At-risk populations and anyone recovering from an injury should do the same. According to the CDC’s Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, the recommended 150 to 300 minutes a week of moderate aerobic activity can be achieved at any interval. Spreading the activity evenly across the week will be the most beneficial.
In addition to aerobic activity, healthy adults should do muscle-strengthening activities at least twice a week. These two days don’t have to be additional days; you can combine aerobic and muscle-strengthening exercises depending on the activities you choose. An example of a good moderate-intensity routine would be a thirty-minute brisk walk within your target heart rate zone three days a week. Combine this with thirty minutes of resistance band training twice a week, and you’ve accomplished your first goal. More activity means more benefits, so increase your duration and maintain the intensity to see better results.
For some, moderate-intensity exercise isn’t enough. Athletes, veteran exercisers, and others who want to push themselves to improve their condition rely on vigorous-intensity exercise to reach their goals. This category of exercise should be spread across the week, considering the need for longer recovery times. Since there are a limited number of days in a week, proper scheduling becomes an important factor. A really intense leg-strengthening day might be followed the next day by activities that mostly use the upper body. Most people who choose vigorous-intensity exercise use a combination of moderate and vigorous exercises to supplement their properly scheduled routine.
Rather than limit yourself to one intensity, use them both to your advantage. A thirty- to sixty-minute brisk walk is a great way to work out some leg muscle soreness from a vigorous workout the previous day. After a big meal, you usually want to sit down and let the food digest. However, this is the perfect chance to get in some moderate-intensity activity. Twenty minutes after your meal, go for a thirty-minute walk. This is a great way to help stabilize increasing blood sugar levels after eating. Be sure not to turn up the intensity too soon after eating; otherwise, you may lose your meal.
Exercise intensity measures “perceived exertion,” or how hard an activity feels to you. That means the intensity is unique to the individual exerting the force. A brisk walk, which is typically categorized as moderate intensity, might be a vigorous-intensity exercise for a beginner, and it might be impossible for someone recovering from hip surgery. That’s why heart-rate training is an important measurement in a fitness program. The same activity should become less intense over time, which is a signal of your body’s conditioning. As this happens, increasing the intensity or duration of your activity will keep you moving in the right direction.
Choosing the right intensity and the proper duration for your exercise is an important part of maintaining a safe and healthy wellness routine that can last a lifetime. Use these categories and recommendations as general guidelines, and remember that you are in charge of your own intensity. Bring what you need and save the rest for later, or bring it all at once and give it all you’ve got.
Ali Othman is an NSCA-certified personal trainer with over fifteen years of experience in the health and wellness industry. He also works in the Technical Department at IFANCA and manages IFANCA business activities in South Korea.