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Determining Exercise Intensity
If you’re new to exercise and thinking about starting a new workout program, you may be wondering what intensity level is right for your goals and your fitness level. Many people are unsure of what defines an intensity level and avoid exercises labeled as vigorous intensity due to fear of injury or lack of ability. As a personal trainer and exercise physiologist, it’s my job to help explain these terms and concepts in a more understandable way. In this article, I will explain light, moderate, and vigorous intensity so that you, as a physically active person, can be more educated and comfortable with what you are doing in your daily exercise routine. A combination of moderate and vigorous exercise is recommended for most healthy adults, while light to moderate exercise is recommended for deconditioned individuals. Intensity is individually based, meaning your intensity level is based on your physical ability and not generalized to the abilities of others. Ideally, you’ll want a professional in the field to determine your intensity level based on a guided fitness test, but I’ll provide you with information that will give you an estimate without such resources. To do so we will use a method known as target HR reserve method. This method starts with HR reserve, which is defined as the difference between your resting heart rate and your maximum 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 shown a moderate intensity exercise routine for me.
1) Subtract your age from 220 to find your approximate HR max.
220-22 = 198 bpm. My estimated HR max is 198 beats per minute.
2) 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.
3) Now I need to use Heart Rate Reserve (HRR) and multiply it by a percentage equal to the intensity you want to reach.
a Light intensity <50% HRR
b Moderate severity 50-70% HRR
c Strong intensity 70%-85% HRR
In this case, I would like to exercise at a moderate intensity. So, I would multiply my HRR by 50% to get my lowest HR value and then multiply my highest value by 70% to stay in 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 last step in this process is to add your resting HR back to the HRR percentage to get your final range target HR reserve. This equation allows you to take into account your cardio endurance level at rest and adjust accordingly. Below, I show how to do this and find 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 for the elderly. It allows them to remain physically active when they have physical limitations or health problems that prevent moderate or vigorous activity. Light intensity is considered less than 50% of target heart rate reserve and provides many health benefits, especially to deconditioned individuals. According to an Oregon State University study published in the American Journal of Health Promotion, older adults who participated in light physical activity such as walking showed a significant increase in health. These individuals were less likely to develop chronic diseases and had a lower body mass index.
Benefits of moderate intensity exercise
Moderate intensity exercise is the most beneficial form of exercise. It offers a plethora of health benefits from lower blood pressure, improved cholesterol, weight management, cancer prevention and more. Moderate intensity is recommended for all adults unless restricted by a physician. Moderate intensity is between 50%-70% of target HR reserve and can be achieved through a range of activities such as brisk walking, leisurely cycling, aqua aerobics and dancing. There are many ways you can reap the benefits of being physically active at moderate intensity, but it starts with taking the first step.
Benefits of vigorous intensity exercise
Vigorous-intensity exercise is recommended for adults who are regularly physically active and have at least an average physical fitness level. High intensity isn’t power lifting or running at Olympic pace. Vigorous intensity activities include jogging, rowing, elliptical, brisk dancing and aerobics. The target HR reserve percentage is between 70%-85%. If you have a history of health problems or are middle-aged, it is recommended that you seek clearance from your doctor before engaging in vigorous activity. Vigorous intensity has the same benefits as moderate intensity but also increases the risk of injury. A combination of both moderate and vigorous intensity is recommended for the average adult to get the maximum benefits of exercise.
Finally, it should be known that intensity levels matter but are not as frightening as noise. ACSM recommends that healthy adults engage in 30 – 60 minutes of moderate exercise or 20 – 60 minutes of vigorous exercise or a combination of both on ≥ 3 to 5 days per week. If you participate only at a moderate intensity, you should do this 5 ≥ days a week and if you only participate at a vigorous intensity, do it 3 ≥ days a week. Ask your doctor if you have any concerns about your current fitness level and your ability to exercise at a vigorous intensity. I hope you can take it as mentioned above and use it as a resource on your journey to better health.
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