If you’re new to exercise and want to start a new workout routine, you might be wondering what level of intensity is best for your goals and fitness level. Many people are unsure of how intensity levels are defined and avoid vigorous-intensity exercises out of fear of injury or lack of ability. It is my job as a personal trainer and exercise physiologist to help explain these terms and concepts in a way that is more understandable.
I’ll break down light, moderate, and vigorous intensity in this article so that you, as a physically active person, are more educated and comfortable with what you’re doing in your daily activities. Most healthy adults should engage in a combination of moderate and vigorous exercise, while deconditioned people should engage in light to moderate exercises. Individual intensity levels are determined by your physical abilities rather than being influenced by the abilities of others.
You should have your intensity levels determined by a professional in the field using a guided fitness test, but I will provide you with information that will allow you to make an estimate without such resources. We’ll use the target HR reserve method to accomplish this.
The HR reserve, which is defined as the difference between your resting and maximal heart rates, is the first step in this method. The appropriate intensity percentage is then multiplied by your HR reserve, and your resting HR is added back to get your target HR reserve. For myself, I’ve shown how to do moderate intensity exercise in the video below.
1) Subtract your age from 220 to get your estimated HR max.
220-22= 198 bpm. My estimated HR max is 198 beats per minute.
2) Use a radial pulse or HR monitor to determine your resting heart rate. My heart rate at rest is 60 beats per minute. To calculate my heart rate reserve, I’ll subtract my resting HR from my estimated maximum heart rate.
198 – 60 =138 beats per minute.
3) Now I need to multiply the heart rate reserve (HRR) by the percentage equivalent to the intensity you want to achieve.
a. Light Intensity <50% HRR
b. Moderate Intensity 50-70% HRR
c. 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.
4) The final step in this process is to add your resting HR back into the HRR percentage to get your final range of target HR reserve. This allows the equation to take into account your resting cardio endurance level and adjust accordingly. I’ve demonstrated how to do so and found my target HRR range for moderate intensity exercise in the video below.
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
For older adults, light-intensity exercise is extremely beneficial. It enables them to stay physically active despite physical limitations or health concerns that prevent them from engaging in moderate or vigorous activity. Light intensity is defined as anything below 50% of the target heart rate reserve and has numerous health benefits, particularly for people who are deconditioned. An Oregon State University study published in the American Journal of Health Promotion found that elderly people who engaged in light physical activity such as walking had a significant improvement in their health. These people had lower BMI measurements and were less likely to develop chronic illnesses.
Benefits of Moderate Intensity Exercise
The most beneficial form of exercise is moderate intensity exercise. It has a wide range of health benefits, including lower blood pressure, better cholesterol, weight loss, cancer prevention, and much more. Unless otherwise directed by a physician, all adults should exercise at a moderate intensity. Moderate intensity is defined as anything between 50% and 70% of the target HR reserve, which can be achieved through a variety of activities such as brisk walking, leisurely cycling, aqua aerobics, and dancing. You can be physically active and reap the benefits of moderate intensity in a variety of ways, but it all starts with you taking the first step.
Benefits of Vigorous Intensity Exercise
Adults who are physically active on a regular basis and have an average level of fitness should engage in vigorous-intensity exercise. Powerlifting or sprinting at Olympic speed are not examples of vigorous intensity. Jogging, rowing, elliptical, fast dancing, and aerobics are examples of vigorous-intensity activities. The target HR reserve percentage is somewhere between 70% and 85%. If you have a history of health problems or are in your middle years, you should seek medical advice before engaging in strenuous activity. While vigorous intensity provides similar benefits to moderate intensity, it also increases the risk of injury.It is recommended that a combination of both moderate and vigorous intensity be attained by the average adult to achieve maximum benefits from exercise.
Finally, it should be understood that while intensity levels are important, they are not as intimidating as they appear. A healthy adult should get 30-60 minutes of moderate exercise or 20-60 minutes of vigorous exercise, or a combination of both, three to five days per week, according to ACSM. It is also recommended that you do this 5 days a week if you only participate in moderate intensity and 3 days a week if you only participate in vigorous intensity. If you have any concerns about your current fitness level or ability to perform vigorous intensity exercise, consult your doctor. I hope you will be able to use what was mentioned above as a resource on your journey.
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