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Trainer Tips

Monitoring Your Exercise Intensity

By Derek Walczak, Exercise Physiologist
Tanger BeWell Center at BIDMC

When you’re starting a walking or other type of exercise program, it’s important to take things easy at first and slowly increase the amount of exercise and exertion. For bariatric patients with a high body-mass index (BMI) and/or other conditions such as knee osteoarthritis, the Weight Loss Surgery Center recommends walking in intervals at a slow pace and increasing speed as tolerated:

Time Duration
5 minutes 6 times per day
10 minutes 3 times per day
15 minutes 2 times per day 

As you increase the time and speed of your exercise, there are three ways to measure your intensity: the Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE), the Talk Test, and Target Heart Rate.

Rate of Perceived Exertion

RPE is based on a 10 point scale, which allows an exerciser to determine their intensity level by choosing a number that best represents how he/she is feeling during a workout. While walking, you should aim to make it feel “Moderate to Somewhat Hard.” Exercising between the 4 to 6 range will place the body at an appropriate level to continually improve your fitness.

Somewhat Hard
Very Hard
Normal breathing Breathing a little faster Breathing a little faster and deeper Breathing heavier Breathing heavy, barely able to talk Panting and unable to talk
No unusual muscle activity Muscles warming up Muscles feel like they are working Muscles feel strong and able to continue Muscles feel tired, barely able to continue Muscles hurt or feel weak

Talk Test

You should be able to carry on a conversation while walking or working out (but you should not be able to sing). If you find yourself barely able to talk while exercising, decrease the intensity.

Target Heart Rate

Exercise should be maintained between 55 and 85 percent of your maximum heart rate range. To calculate your target heart rate:

  • Subtract your age from 220
  • Multiply that number by .55, and also multiply it by .85 to determine your working heart rate range

person checking their pulse with two fingers on their wristFor example, if you’re 43 years old, your working heart rate range is between 97.35 and 150.45 beats per minute:

  • 220 – 43 = 177
  • 177 x .55 = 97.35
  • 177 x .85 = 150.45

If you are a beginner, start exercising at the lower end of your target heart rate.

Keep in mind that walking up stairs and hills (or on a treadmill incline) will increase the intensity of exercise. You can use these methods to add variation to your workout and increase difficulty in short bouts. Always be aware of how these bouts affect your heart rate and RPE. If you find yourself short of breath or unable to talk, slow down and return to flat ground.

If you are taking heart medications or have other medical concerns, you should utilize the RPE method or Talk Test to monitor intensity.

Please consult a physician before starting any exercise program.

Derek Walczak is an Exercise Physiologist at BIDMC's
Tanger Be Well Center. He holds a BS in Kinesiology from UMASS Amherst and is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist through the National Strength and Conditioning Association.

Above content provided by the Weight Loss Surgery Center at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. For advice about your medical care, consult your doctor.

August 2014

Contact Information

Tanger Be Well Center
Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center
Shapiro Clinical Center
Ground Level
330 Brookline Avenue
Boston, MA 02215

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