If you are new to exercise and are looking to begin a new workout program, you may be wondering what intensity level is appropriate for your goals and your fitness level. Many people aren’t sure what intensity levels are defined by and avoid exercises labeled as vigorous intensity due to the fear of injury or lack of ability. As a personal trainer and exercise physiologist, it is my job to help explain these terms and concepts in a more understandable way. In this article, I will break down, light, moderate, and vigorous intensity, so that you, as a physically activity individual, are more educated and comfortable with what it is you are doing in your day to day exercises. It is recommended that a combination of moderate and vigorous exercise be done by most healthy adults, while light to moderate exercises, be performed by deconditioned persons.
Intensity is individually based, meaning your intensity level is based on your physical abilities and not generalized by the abilities of others. Ideally, you would want a professional in the field to determine your intensity levels based on a guided fitness test, but I will provide you with information that will allow you to get an estimate without such resources. To do so we will use what is known as the target HR reserve method. This method begins with the HR reserve, which is defined as the difference in your resting heart rate and your maximal HR. Your HR reserve is then multiplied by the appropriate intensity percentage you are targeting, then your resting HR is added back to get your target HR reserve. Below I have demonstrated the method for moderate intensity exercise for myself.
Determining Exercise Intensity
To find your estimated HR max, subtract your age from 220.
- 220-22= 198 bpm. My estimated HR max is 198 beats per minute.
To find your resting heart rate, use a radial pulse or HR monitor. My resting HR is 60 beats per minute. I will now subtract my resting HR from my estimated heart rate max to determine my heart rate reserve.
- 198 – 60 =138 beats per minute.
Now I must use the heart rate reserve (HRR) and multiply it by the percentage equivalent to the intensity you are aiming to reach.
- Light Intensity <50% HRR
- Moderate Intensity 50-70% HRR
- Vigorous Intensity 70%-85% HRR
In this case, I would like to exercise at moderate intensity. Therefore, I will multiply my HRR by 50% to get my lowest HR value and then by 70% to get my highest value to remain within that range for moderate intensity.
- 138 beats per minute X.50 = 69 beats per minute.
- 138 beats per minute X.70 = 96.6 beats per minute.
The last step in this process to get your final range of target HR reserve is to add your resting HR back to the HRR percentage. This allows the equation to consider your cardio endurance level at rest and adjusts accordingly. Below, I have demonstrated how to do so and have found my target HRR range for moderate intensity exercise.
- 69 beats per minute + 60 beats per minute = 129 beats per minute
- 96.6 beats per minute + 60 beats per minute = 156.6 beats per minute.
- Target HR Range for Moderate Intensity = 129 bpm – 156.6 bpm.
Benefits of Light Intensity Exercise
Light intensity exercise is very beneficial to older adults. It allows them to remain physically active when there may be physical limitations or health concerns preventing moderate or vigorous activity. Light intensity is considered anything below 50% of the target heart rate reserve and provides many health benefits, especially to deconditioned persons. An Oregon State University study, published in the American Journal of Health Promotion, showed a significant increase in health for elderly persons, who participated in light physical activity such as walking. These individuals were less likely to develop chronic illness and had lower body mass index measurements.
Benefits of Moderate Intensity Exercise
Moderate intensity exercise is the most beneficial form of exercise. It yields an enormous amount of health benefits ranging from lower blood pressure, improved cholesterol, weight management, cancer prevention, and much more. Moderate intensity is recommended for all adults unless restricted by a doctor. Moderate intensity is anything between 50%-70% of the target HR reserve and is attainable by doing many activities, such as brisk walking, leisurely cycling, aqua aerobics, and dancing. There is a wide range of ways in which you can be physically active and yield the benefits of moderate intensity, but it begins with you taking that first step.
Benefits of Vigorous Intensity Exercise
Vigorous-intensity exercise is recommended for adults who are habitually physically active and with at least an average physical fitness level. Vigorous intensity is not power lifting or sprinting at Olympic pace. Activities of vigorous intensity include jogging, rowing, elliptical, fast dancing, and aerobics. The target HR reserve percentage is anything between 70%-85%. It is recommended that if you have a history of health-related issues or of middle age you get clearance from your doctor before performing vigorous activity. Vigorous intensity has similar benefits as moderate intensity but also comes with an increase in injury risk. It is recommended that a combination of both moderate and vigorous intensity be attained by the average adult to achieve maximum benefits from exercise.
In conclusion, it should be known that intensity levels are of importance but they are not as intimidating as they sound. It is recommended by ACSM that a healthy adult get 30 – 60 minutes of moderate exercise or 20 – 60 minutes of vigorous exercise, or a combination of both, each day for ≥3 to 5 days per week. It is also recommended that if you only participate in moderate intensity, you do this 5 ≥ days a week and if you only participate in vigorous intensity, 3 ≥ days a week. Ask your doctor if you have any concerns about your current fitness level and your ability to perform vigorous intensity exercise. I hope you can take when was mentioned above and use it as a resource on your journey for optimal wellness.