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Methods You Can Use to Measure Exercise Intensity Level

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Updated September 30, 2013

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

When you are exercising, it is important to know how hard your body is working--especially if you have had a cardiac event like a heart attack or heart surgery. In these cases, doctors often recommend self-monitoring the amount of "exercise induced stress" that the body is under at any given point in time. In fact, a very important aspect of any cardiac rehabilitation program is for you to learn how hard you are working while performing various tasks and exercises.

Your physical therapist can teach you various methods to self-assess your exercise exertion level. He or she can teach you how to measure things like your heart rate or your rate of exertion so you can know if an activity is too difficult or too easy for you to perform.

Below are common methods of measuring exertion level while exercising or while performing other functional mobility activities. Be sure to check with your doctor before performing any exercise or fitness program to ensure that it is safe for you.

1. Heart Rate Measurement

Measuring your heart rate is a simple and effective way to monitor your intensity level. You can simply place your fingers over your wrist near your thumb and feel your pulse, or you can feel your carotid pulse just to the side of your neck.

Heart rate is usually measured as the number of beats per minute, but you can simply count the number of beats you feel in your pulse for 10 seconds, and then multiply that number by 6 to obtain your heart rate.

Your appropriate exercise heart rate is usually a percentage of your age related estimated maximal heart rate. Your physical therapist can help determine the best exercise heart rate for you.

2. Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE)

The Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) scale is an excellent method to measure how hard you are working during exercise and other activities. It is a 10 point scale, and you can choose a number based on how hard you find an activity to be.

The RPE scale starts a 0 (no exertion at all) and goes to a maximal score of 10 (very, very heavy work). It is a simple way to measure how difficult you find an activity to be.

3. The Borg Scale

The Borg Scale of Exertion is similar to the RPE scale. To use the Borg scale, you simply choose a number that matches how difficult you find an activity to be.

The main difference between the Borg and the RPE scales is that the Borg scale starts at number 6 and runs to number 20. A score of 6 equates to no work at all, while 20 represents maximal exertion.

The numbers on the Borg scale are closely related to your heart rate. If you choose a number and multiply it by a factor of 10, that product should be close to your actual heart rate. For example, if you are watching television and choose a number of 6 on the Borg scale (no work at all), and then multiply your score by 10, then you would have a score of 60. Most people have a resting heart rate of about 60 beats per minute.

4. The Talk Test

The Talk Test is a simple way to measure how hard you are working while exercising or performing other strenuous activities. While you are exercising, if you can talk, the exercise is not too difficult for you to do. If you are unable to talk while exercising, the intensity of the activity may be too much and should be lowered.

The ability to measure your intensity level is an important step in self-care and self-monitoring of your exercise and activity level. It is often taught to people in acute phase one cardiac rehabilitation programs as a first step in self-care. It is a great way to ensure that you are exercising at a safe and appropriate level.

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