May 25, 2018
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Intensity: why it matters

Associated Press photo | BDN
Associated Press photo | BDN
By Nicole Hammar, Move and Improve coordinator, Eastern Maine Healthcare Systems

The need to get more physical activity into your day is important for a number of reasons. For one, the human body was designed to move. The more you move, the more efficient your body may become. In particular, potential improvements in heart and lung function, flexibility and muscular strength and endurance may result as a benefit. The Centers for Disease Control states that “regular physical activity is one of the most important things you can do for your health.”

The more you move, the healthier your body becomes – of course, with certain limits as you don’t want to cause possible injury due to overexertion. On the flip side, we know that far too many of our fellow Americans are not getting enough physical activity during their day. Sedentary lifestyles are becoming the “norm” while being physically active is becoming the exception.

Over-ambition and perceived results

When starting a physical activity program people are excited to make changes. However, the “all or nothing” mentality may lead to injury or burnout. For example, the overly ambitious person who decides this is his time to get in shape: previously living a sedentary lifestyle, he starts every day with an incredibly intense physical activity regimen. Within a few weeks, and in some cases days, he has burned out and now has a physical injury that keeps him from being physically active.

Or the opposite happen: people are not working as hard as they need to reap the benefits and they get frustrated with the lack of their perceived results which leads to frustration and ultimately, drop-out! The reluctant participant who simply goes through the motions with minimal to no intensity may drop out because the perceived benefits of being physically active are not in line with the actual outcome.

How intense is intense enough?

How hard do I need to push myself without pushing so hard that I get injured or burned out? How do I know if I am being physically active at a “moderate” level of intensity, the general recommendation for most people? There are two ways that may help you gauge your level of intensity: the talk test and Borg’s Rating of Perceived Exertion.

The Talk Test

The Talk Test is an easy way to know how intensely you are working. If your physical activity causes you to break a sweat but you are still able to carry on a conversation, you are most likely engaging in a moderately intense level of activity.

Depending a person’s fitness level, a moderate level of intensity may look very different from one person to another. For example, taking a walk for an elderly individual would exhibit a different level of intensity compared to that of a professional athlete. Intensity level is independent to each and every person.

The Borg Rating of Perceived Exertion

The Borg Rating of Perceived Exertion is a way of measuring physical activity intensity level. Perceived exertion is how hard you feel like your body is working. It is based on the physical sensations a person experiences during physical activity, including increased heart rate, increased respiration or breathing rate, increased sweating, and muscle fatigue. Although this is a subjective measure, a person’s exertion rating may provide a fairly good estimate of the actual heart rate during physical activity.

The following scale provides instructions on how to rate your perceived exertion while being physically active. Generally a rating between 12 and 14 would suggest your activity is at a moderate level of intensity.

Instructions for Borg Rating of Perceived Exertion Scale

Look at the rating scale while you are engaging in an activity; it ranges from 6 to 20, where 6 means “no exertion at all” and 20 means “maximal exertion.” Choose the number that best describes your level of exertion. This will give you a good idea of the intensity level of your activity, and you can use this information to speed up or slow down your movements to reach your desired range.

Try to appraise your feeling of exertion as honestly as possible, without thinking about what the actual physical load is. Your own feeling of effort and exertion is important, not how it compares to other people’s. Look at the scales and the expressions and then give a number.

  1. 9 corresponds to “very light” exercise. For a healthy person, it is like walking slowly at his or her own pace for some minutes.
  2. 13 on the scale is “somewhat hard” exercise, but it still feels OK to continue.
  3. 17 “very hard” is very strenuous. A healthy person can still go on, but he or she really has to push him- or herself. It feels very heavy, and the person is very tired.
  4. 19 on the scale is an extremely strenuous exercise level. For most people this is the most strenuous exercise they have ever experienced.


The Borg Rating Scale

Least effort

6 – – no exertion at all

7 – – very very light


9 – – very light


11 – light


13 – somewhat hard


15 – hard


17 – very hard


19 – extremely hard

20 – maximal exertion

Maximum effort

You are the best judge to determine your level of intensity while being physically active. Using the talk test or the Borg Rating of Perceived Exertion will help you identify where you need to exert yourself to reap the most benefit from your activity. Remember to talk to your doctor about the kinds of activities you wish to participate in and follow his or her advice. Work with your doctor to develop a physical activity plan that matches your abilities.

Have feedback? Want to know more? Send us ideas for follow-up stories.

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