How Hard Should I Exercise?

Exercise Intensity

Over the years, I've had many a client who started on my fitness program who stated they were working out before and getting nowhere. After a quick observation of their program, I realize they were not working out hard enough. They usually don't know at what intensity they should be exercising.

Target Heart Rate

According to the American College of Sports Medicine, to improve your cardiorespiratory fitness you must workout between 55% to 90% of maximum heart rate. You want to keep your heart rate between 55% to the high end of 90%. If you are new to working out or have cardiac conditions, keep your intensity on the low end of the scale between 55%-70%.

 As your cardiorespiratory system becomes more fit, you can increase your target rate to 75% to 90% MHR. If you don't know how to take your pulse to see the picture to the left. Make sure you take your pulse with two fingers and not your thumb. When taking the pulse on the wrist make sure you place your fingers on your thumb side of your arm (Radial pulse). Click the link, to follow the Karvonen target heart formula

The Rate of Perceived Exertion

People on medication that slows down the heart rate cannot use the target heart rate method, so another intensity measurement is needed and it is called rate of perceived exertion or RPE. It is a scale based on your overall feeling as you exercise. Read the following chart below, this is from the Cleveland Clinic:

The RPE scale is used to measure the intensity of your exercise. The RPE scale runs from 0 – 10. The numbers below relate to phrases used to rate how easy or difficult you find an activity. For example, 0 (nothing at all) would be how you feel when sitting in a chair; 10 (very, very heavy) is how you feel at the end of an exercise stress test or after a very difficult activity.

0 – Nothing at all
0.5 – Just noticeable
1 – Very light
2 – Light
3  – Moderate
4 –   Somewhat heavy
5 – Heavy
7 – Very heavy
10 – Very, very heavy

In most cases, you should exercise at a level that feels 3 (moderate) to 4 (somewhat heavy). When using this rating scale, remember to include feelings of shortness of breath, as well as how tired you feel in your legs and overall.

As stated above, you want to be at 3 or 4 on the RPE scale and you want to workout to the point you are sweating and you are breathing slightly hard. Take the talk test. If you cannot talk that means you are exercising too hard and if you can sing or carry on a conversation without any effort, then you are not working out hard enough.

So there are three ways of monitoring exercise intensity, one is by using your heart rate, the second is going by the RPE scale and the third is the talk test. I hope you use one of these methods to help you reach your heart rate training zone.

If you want a more sophisticated way of taking your heart rate, then you should invest in a heart rate or heartbeat monitor. The Polar heart rate monitor is well known in the fitness industry as a reliable and excellent brand. You don't need to buy a $300 model but something that will keep your time and read your heart rate. Check out the polar monitors below:

A FitBit can also read your heart rate:


  1. Thanks so much for the advice! Much needed after all the food I consumed yesterday. *Ashamed.*

  2. Stopping by from Motivational Monday. Thank you very much for this information. I've begun working out and this is going to really help. Have a great day. Blessings from Croatian: A Little R & R:

  3. After reading this I know I might need to pick it up a little lol! I was more conscious of my heart rate while I need to make sure I'm not slacking.

  4. These are very interesting points! I learned something. :) Thanks for visiting and leaving a comment on Amanda's Books and More. I've answered your questions there and hope you check them out.

    Tina - American mom raising 4 kids in South Africa

  5. I definitely suggest getting a heart rate monitor. It's a good motivator since it keeps track of your progress. My battery died and I've been in a slump :(


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