Just How Intense Should Vigorous Activity Be?

Federal guidelines for exercise tell us that adults need at least 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity every week to enjoy the health benefits of working out. However, according to a new study, most people don’t have a thorough understanding of what exactly it means to hit the right level of intensity. Just how sweaty do you have to get for your routine to qualify as moderate or vigorous? Many people believe their exercise habits are more vigorous than they actually are, which means they’re not getting as intense of a workout as they ought to.

What did the research reveal?
Researchers from York University in Toronto published the findings of their study in the journal PLOS ONE in May. They spoke with 129 sedentary adults ages 18 to 64 regarding Canadian exercise guidelines and observed them working out at what the participants believed to be appropriate intensities. According to the Public Health Agency of Canada, moderate activity such as riding a bike or walking briskly means you should be able to talk, but not sing. Vigorous activity, such as playing a sport or running will leave you unable to say more than a few words at a time without stopping to breathe.

“We instructed volunteers to walk or jog on the treadmill at a speed which they felt corresponded to the ‘light,’ ‘moderate’ and ‘vigorous’ intensity descriptors used in the physical activity guide, yet they underestimated how hard they should be working to achieve moderate and vigorous intensity,” graduate student Karissa Canning, the study’s lead researcher, explained.

How can I know what intensity level I reach?
Monitoring your heart rate will help you have a better idea of your activity level. For moderate intensity, your heart rate should be roughly in the range of 64 to 76 percent of your maximum heart rate, and vigorous workouts should leave you in the 77 to 90 percent range. Each individual’s maximum heart rate is determined by a number of factors, including weight, heart health and hydration, but your age is the biggest influence. As you get older, your maximum heart rate will decline, which means you won’t be able to exercise as intensely in retirement as you did in college.

How can I calculate my heart rate?
The American Heart Association stated that your approximate maximum heart rate can be determined by subtracting your age from 220. A 35-year-old individual, for instance, would have a maximum rate of 185 beats per minute, whereas it will drop to 170 by age 50. There are plenty of wearable heart rate monitors that you can purchase and use to keep track of your heart rate, and some are better than others. For instance, wrist monitors tend to be less accurate than those that strap around your midsection, but the latter are typically more expensive.

You can also manually determine your heart rate without any special equipment as you work out by literally counting the beats. It can be hard to keep track for a full minute, but counting for 15 seconds and multiplying by four, or 20 seconds multiplied by three, will give you a good estimation. Using a timer or a watch with a second-hand, count the beats of your pulse while keeping an eye on the clock. If you lose track, just start again. Don’t worry if you think you might’ve skipped a beat. You’ll still be able to get an approximate heart rate.

Determining your target heart rate for moderate and vigorous intensities ahead of time can make it easier for you to stay on track during your workout. In turn, you’ll get more out of the work you’re doing, seeing better results and feeling stronger and healthier than if you’re working out below optimal levels of intensity.


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