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Is Your Workout Too Wimpy?

3 ways to tell you if your exercise intensity is too low, too high, or just right.

1. Talk Test

If you do moderate-intensity activity -- such as brisk walking, water aerobics, bicycling slower than 10 mph, playing doubles tennis, or light gardening -- you should be able to talk but not sing.

If you're doing vigorous-intensity activity -- such as jogging or running, swimming laps, singles tennis, bicycling faster than 10 mph, aerobic dancing, or heavy gardening (continuous digging or hoeing) -- you won't be able to say more than a few words without pausing for breath.

"If you're exercising for fitness, you should still be able to carry on a conversation to some extent with a partner while you're working out," Clifford says.

"You shouldn't be able to dictate War and Peace," Hagberg says. "But you shouldn't be out of breath, either. If you're exercising for your health, you don't need to work that hard."

The talk test doesn't apply to elite athletes, especially those who vary their routines with sprint or other intense workouts. "When have you ever seen a 400-meter or 800-meter racer or a miler not be out of breath when they finish a workout or race?" Hagberg says.

The same rules apply to muscle soreness and discomfort. "If you're exercising for your health, you just don't need to go there. Even with strength training, you just need to start off easy and then work your way up," Hagberg says.

2. Target Heart Rate

A common formula for estimating your maximum heart rate is to subtract your age from the number 220.

If you're doing moderate-intensity activity, your heart rate should be 50% to 70% of the maximum. If you're doing vigorous-intensity activity, your heart rate should be 70% to 85% of the maximum.

"If you're exercising at 50% of your maximum heart rate, that's not much exercise. You aren't going to finish your workout huffing and puffing, hunched over with hands on your knees," Hagberg says. "But from a health viewpoint, it's still beneficial."

But if you exercise at 75% of your maximum heart rate -- the intensity of a marathon runner -- you'll find that it's definitely not wimpy. "You're going to be huffing and puffing, and sweating pretty hard," Hagberg says.

3. Perceived Exertion

Several scales use numbers to show how hard you feel you're working.

For instance, the Borg Rating of Perceived Exertion uses a scale of 6-20, with a 6 for no exertion and 20 for the most exertion you could possibly do. Other scales range from 0-10.

If you're exercising for health, Hagberg and Clifford recommend exercising in the middle range of a perceived exertion scale.

Let's say you're using the Borg Rating of Perceived Exertion Scale, which rates exercise intensity on a scale of 6-20. A rating of 12 is light, 13-14 is somewhat hard, 15 is hard, and so on. Athletes typically exercise in the 15-18 range (hard to very hard).

"If you want to be working at a 13 and you feel it's too light and it's only 11, then you need to pick up the pace a little bit," Hagberg says. "If you're out there busting your chops and all of a sudden you go, 'Oh, that's a 16 but I only want to be at a 13,' then you need to back off. As it is with heart rate, it's kind of trial by error."

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Reviewed on July 12, 2010

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