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How hard should I exercise?

People exercising at the gymStarting a new exercise program is challenging. People often wonder: How hard should I be working? Or am I working too hard? Since everyone’s fitness level is different, the answer is based on how you feel.

In Physical Therapy, we often use a modified version of the Borg Scale of Perceived Exertion to help clients measure how hard they are working. It is a scale that puts a number to how much effort you feel you are putting into your exercise.

Ask yourself: “Using a scale from 0 to 10, how would I rate how hard I are working?” Imagine it like this: Zero means you aren’t working at all (I’m lying down watching TV). 10 is the absolute hardest you can work (I’m running as fast as possible up a hill away from a lion chasing me!).

1 and 2: very low to low amounts of exertion.

3 and 4: moderate to strong

5 and 6: strong amounts of effort

7 or greater is very strong up to maximum at 10.

A quick rule to follow: If you can’t talk while you are exercising because you are too out of breath, it is too much.  If you can easily carry on a conversation with someone about the Netflix you binged on last night, it is not challenging enough!

I recommend my clients begin with an effort of 3 or 4 out of 10 for about 15 to 20 minutes. Remember, as you begin to get tired, you’ll need more effort to keep moving at the same speed. So to maintain a 3 to 4 effort, you may need to slow down as you get fatigued (otherwise, you’ll start feeling like you are at a 10!).  As you continue, I would recommend that you increase your effort (up to a 5 or 6 out of 10) and the length of time gradually.

This is a nice way to measure your work as it is geared to how you feel, and as you improve your fitness you’ll have to work harder to achieve the same feel of effort. So it continues to be a good measure, regardless of fitness level.

Are you starting a new exercise routine? Good luck and stick with it! If you haven’t been active, talk to your health-care provider!

About the author

Jennifer Toland

Jennifer Toland

Jennifer Toland is a physiotherapist with extensive knowledge and experience in orthopaedic issues and specialized training in vestibular rehabilitation therapy.