We're often told to get a “moderate workout” several times a week. But what does that mean? 09/04/2017
We all want to feel good and enjoy optimal health.
Diet is very important for that, and exercise is equally key, if not more so.
Based on loads of evidence, experts recommend regular, “moderate” workouts.
But what is a moderate workout, and how does it differ from a light or vigorous workout?
We’ll detail how to determine the intensity of your workouts, but let’s start by reviewing the current exercise recommendations.
How much exercise do you need?
You know you need to move your body to stay healthy. But how much?
The 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), focus on two kinds of weekly activity.
First, you need regular aerobic workouts, with the amount of time per week depending on the intensity of that exercise and your overall health goals.
These are the recommended weekly workout minimums for adults:
- 2 hours and 30 minutes (150 minutes) of moderate-intensity aerobic activity
- 1 hour and 15 minutes (75 minutes) of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity
And these are the CDC's weekly workout recommendations for greater health benefits:
- 5 hours (300 minutes) of moderate-intensity aerobic activity
- 2 hours and 30 minutes (150 minutes) of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity
In addition, the CDC advises strength-training two or more days a week, including exercises that work all the major muscle groups: legs, hips, back, abdomen, chest, shoulders, and arms.
Measurement method #1: Target heart rate
You’ll often see “brisk walk” as the guideline for a moderate workout.
But what’s brisk for others may be very different than what’s brisk for you. And your sense of what’s intense will differ from what others find intense.
There are two ways to judge the intensity of your workouts.
The first and more accurate way is to monitor your heart rate during workouts, using a wearable device on your wrist or chest.
It’s easier to monitor your heart rate if you choose a device that sets off audible and visual alarms when you drift outside your target zone.
The idea is to calculate your maximum heart rate, then keep your heart rate during workouts within a targeted range.
Simply subtract your age from 220 to determine your maximum heart rate. For example, the maximum rate for a healthy person aged 50 years would be 170 beats per minute (220 – 50 = 170).
A moderate aerobic workout means maintaining your heart rate at 50-70% of your maximum heart rate.
For example, a moderate workout for a healthy 50-year-old person — whose maximum heart rate is 170 — would mean staying within 85 and 119 beats per minute.
If your goal is a vigorous workout, then you should aim to maintain your heart rate at 70-85% of your maximum heart rate.
You can either wear a heart rate monitor device as you exercise, or you can take periodic readings of your heart rate using your pulse.
To take your pulse, find the artery in your wrist or neck, count the number of heartbeats you feel with your fingertips for six seconds, and then multiply that count by 10. Or, count heartbeats for 10 seconds and multiply that number by six.
Measurement method #2 – Perceived exertion
Your heart rate is the most accurate measure of exercise intensity.
However, using “perceived exertion” is more convenient, as it doesn’t require a heartrate monitor or time piece.
The Borg Rating of Perceived Exertion — developed in Sweden in the 1980s and repeatedly validated since then — measures the intensity of your workout by ranking how hard you feel your body is working.
Perceived exertion simply means the sensations you experience as you work out, including ease of breathing, heart rate, amount of sweating, and how tired your muscles feel.
And there’s a remarkably strong relationship between perceived exertion and heart rate.
The Borg system uses a scale ranging from six to 20, with a moderate workout falling between 12 and 14:
- 6 — No exertion at all — reading a book
- 7-8 — Very, very light — tying shoes
- 9-10 — Very light — household chores, such as folding laundry
- 11-12 — Fairly light — strolling; you’re moving but your breath isn’t speeding up
- 13-14 — Somewhat hard — brisk walk; your heartbeat and breathing speed up, but you’re not out of breath
- 15-16 — Hard — running, cycling, swimming; takes vigorous effort and gets your heart pounding and your breath is fast
- 17-18 — Very hard — the highest level of exertion that you can sustain for more than a few minutes
- 19-20 — Extremely hard — a sprint or similar burst of activity that you can’t sustain for more than a few minutes
Get moving – Some moderate and vigorous workout suggestions
Here are some examples of workouts that would qualify as moderate, depending on your age and your current level of fitness:
- Doubles tennis
- Water aerobics
- Mowing the lawn
- Ballroom dancing
- Bicycling slower than 10 miles per hour
- Cleaning (washing windows, vacuuming, mopping)
- Walking briskly (3 miles per hour or faster)
If you’re ready for vigorous workouts, be sure to make the transition gradually.
These are some examples that would qualify — again, depending on your age and current level of fitness:
- Jumping rope
- Singles tennis
- Swimming laps
- Aerobic dancing
- Jogging or running
- Bicycling 10 miles per hour or faster
- Heavy gardening (continuous digging or hoeing)
It’s important to choose something you really enjoy and that’s easy for you to achieve each day!
Pressed for time? Try these approaches
If you can’t routinely find 30-45 minutes for a workout, don’t sweat it!
You can get your minutes in whatever chunks of time you find manageable — even just a few minutes at a time. The important point is to move!
For more information about brief, high intensity exercise, see 7-Minute Fitness HIIT, Pressed for Time? Try this Workout Shortcut, What's the Best Energizing, Anti-Aging Workout?, and How Much Exercise is Enough?.
- Appelboom G, Camacho E, Abraham ME, Bruce SS, Dumont EL, Zacharia BE, D'Amico R, Slomian J, Reginster JY, Bruyère O, Connolly ES Jr. Smart wearable body sensors for patient self-assessment and monitoring. Arch Public Health. 2014 Aug 22;72(1):28. doi: 10.1186/2049-3258-72-28. eCollection 2014.
- Borg E, Borg G. A comparison of AME and CR100 for scaling perceived exertion. Acta Psychol (Amst). 2002 Feb;109(2):157-75.
- Borg G. Psychophysical scaling with applications in physical work and the perception of exertion. Scand J Work Environ Health. 1990;16 Suppl 1:55-8.
- Borg GA. Psychophysical bases of perceived exertion. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. 1982; 14:377-381.
- Carton RL, Rhodes EC. A critical review of the literature on ratings scales for perceived exertion. Sports Med. 1985 May-Jun;2(3):198-222. Review.
- Noble BJ. Clinical applications of perceived exertion. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 1982;14(5):406-11.
- Shaykevich A, Grove JR, Jackson B, Landers GJ, Dimmock J. Auditory feedback improves heart rate moderation during moderate-intensity exercise. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2015 May;47(5):1046-51. doi: 10.1249/MSS.0000000000000490. Erratum in: Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2015 Sep;47(9):2003.