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Exercise Intensity & Heart Rate Zone

A Guide To Physical Fitness: Understanding Exercise Intensity & Heart Rate Zone

Do you workout? or take part in any physical activity at all? – If/When you do workout; do you exercise hard or do you hardly exercise?

In order to maximize the benefits of the hard work you are putting in, and to get the most out of it; it is important for you to measure, identify, and keep track of your exercise intensity, as well as the heart rate zone – ensuring that you are not pushing your body too hard, more than your physical limit; and nor are you pushing too little, underutilizing your body.

Read on to develop an understanding on what is exercise intensity, heart beat per minute, as well as safe heart rate zone?

What is Exercise Intensity?

Exercise intensity refers to the extent to which your body is working hard during physical activity. And understanding what type of exercise intensity is perfect for your body is determined by factors such as the existing fitness of your body, how far you push the hard work, and what your desired fitness and health goals are.

To make it simple, the exercise intensity is categorized into three major types i.e. low, moderate, and high intensity exercise. With an objective to find the perfect balance to maximize the outcome, it is recommended to work hard but without exerting your body and exceeding the physical limitations – which refers to moderate intensity exercise.

How To Understand Your Exercise Intensity?

There are certain factors that can help you identify the type of exercise intensity that you are following in a particular workout session. When it comes to aerobic physical activities like cycling or jogging/walking – the exercise intensity can be understood based on how tough or easy the exercise feels to you while doing it. Other factors include your breathing, heart rate if you’re sweating or not, and also how tired your muscles feel to you.

Listed below are the two basic ways to measure exercise intensity:

  • How You Feel:
    Exercise intensity is a subjective measure of how hard physical activity feels to you while you’re doing it — your perceived exertion. Your perceived exertion level may be different from what someone else feels doing the same exercise. For example, what feels to you like a hard run can feel like an easy workout to someone who’s more fit.
  • Your Heart Rate:
    Your heart rate offers a more objective look at exercise intensity. In general, the higher your heart rate during physical activity, the higher the exercise intensity.

What Are The Major Types of Exercise Intensity?

Achieving your body fitness goals, be it shedding weight or gaining a few pounds – it all comes down to one thing, “movement of the body”. How much is the body moved and what type of movement is being done are not the only two important aspects; one of the most important aspects is how intensely is the body being moved.

There are three major types of exercise intensities:  low, moderate, and high intensity exercise.

High Intensity Exercise

Also known as vigorous exercise, high-intensity interval training (HIIT) is the toughest of all exercise intensities, making it challenging while pushing your cardio workout to a higher level, and taking your pace out of the physical comfort.

HIIT can be followed while opting for any type of cardio exercise such as rowing, skipping rope, running, climbing stairs, or stairs machine. It is done by doing high intensity exercise, then taking a pause for gradual recovery periods, and then going back to continuing high intensity exercise.

High intensity exercise not only gives quicker results but it also saves your time in workout sessions, as you do not have to work out for a longer duration of time, compared to if you were exercising at a more comfortable pace.

Moderate Intensity Exercise

The simplest way to explain a moderate intensity exercise is the exercise and the exercise intensity that takes your heart rate 50-60% higher than the rate at which the body was at rest.

All the physical activities listed below are the perfect example of moderate intensity exercise:

  • 15 minutes of skipping rope
  • 15 minutes of walking up the stairs
  • 30 minutes of water aerobics
  • 45 minutes of volleyball
  • 20 minutes of basketball
  • 30 minutes of a 5 miles cycle ride
  • 30 minutes of a 2 miles walk
  • 20 minutes of swimming
  • 15 minutes of 1.5 miles run

Low Intensity Exercise

Low intensity exercises are all the physical activities that are done at a very comfortable pace and intensity, keeping your heart rate consistently at 50%, i.e. half of the maximum heart rate. It is recommended that such an exercise intensity should be continued for a minimum duration of 30 minutes. Also, you can be sure that you are working out at a low intensity if you can have a conversation without losing your breath at all.

Low intensity exercise is capable of preventing injuries and falls, refraining your body from muscle wasting, along with improving blood flow. Here are a few examples of low intensity exercise:

  • Bicycling
  • Rowing
  • Tai-chi
  • Resistance training 
  • Yoga
  • Swimming
  • Walking

What is Heart Beat Per Minute (BPM)?

The simplest way to calculate your heart beat per minute is to find the right spot to feel your pulse, then within the duration of next 15 seconds, count how many times the heartbeat occurs. Once you get a number of beats per 15 seconds, multiply that number into 4 to get the number of beats per minute. A normal adult whose body is at rest will usually be having 60 to 100 beats per minute.

A body is considered to be cardiovascularly fit, while also having an efficient heart functioning; the lower the heart rate is when at rest. For instance, while generally, an adult would have 60 to 100 beats per minute at rest; a well-trained athlete might have a normal resting heart rate closer to 40 beats per minute.

How To Measure Your Safe Heart Rate Zone?

In order to evaluate your maximum age-based safe heart rate zone, you need to subtract your current age from 220- For instance, if a person is aged 45 years old, estimating their maximum age-based safe heart rate zone would require 45 to be subtracted from 220, which would make it 170 BPM (beats per minute).

What Happens If You Cross Your Safe Heart Rate Zone?

If the target heart rate zone is being exceeded occasionally and that too just for short time durations, then your body will not experience any sort of adverse effects – But if the target heart rate zone is crossed over and over again, and is exceeded for longer periods of time, in such a case your body will be led to overtraining.

Overtraining syndrome is a common phenomenon that usually happens with fitness freaks, bodybuilders, and athletes; who end up training too much, to an extent beyond their body’s ability to recover naturally. Such overtraining, where a person’s body is being pushed to its physical limits, while the appropriate time for rest and recovery is not being given; leads to adverse physical effects on the body.

Some of the target heart rate zone crossing side effects may include:

  • Decreased performance
  • Fatigue
  • Altered hormonal states
  • Poor sleeping patterns
  • Reproductive disorders
  • Decreased immunity
  • Loss of appetite
  • Mood disturbances

– Disclaimer –
This blog is for informational & educational purposes only, and does not intend to substitute any professional medical advice or consultation. For any health related concerns, please consult with your physician, or call 911.

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Medically Reviewed

Last reviewed by Dr. Syra Hanif, M.D. on 12/16/2022

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  • About The Author

    Dr. Syra Hanif M.D.

    Board Certified Primary Care Physician

Dr. Syra Hanif is a board-certified Primary Care Physician (PCP) dedicated to providing compassionate, patient-centered healthcare.

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