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How Do You Measure Exercise Intensity?

If you’re someone who likes to make sure that you get your daily walk in and goes to the gym – but isn’t someone who is super hardcore about times and speeds, you might want to measure your exercise in terms of intensity.

If so, this article is for you. We’ll discuss why you should measure exercise intensity and how to do it, both with and without a heart rate monitor.

Whether you’re happy with your fitness routine or if you have started running to pick things up, measuring intensity will help you get the most out of your exercising.

What is Exercise Intensity?

Exercise intensity simply means how hard you are working out or exercising. It’s typically used to refer to aerobic activity like running or walking. The harder you exercise, the more of a benefit you’ll see to your physical fitness and cardiovascular system.

There are two ways to measure exercise intensity. The first is by feel. This is answering the question: how challenging a particular activity feels to you. If running today feels harder than running yesterday, then your exercise intensity is higher today.

Another way to determine exercise intensity is by heart rate. This gives you a more accurate picture of how hard your body is working. While people who exercise a lot tend to know their bodies well and have a good idea of exercise intensity, using heart rate initially can help beginners.

Why Should I Measure Exercise Intensity?

Knowing how hard you’re working out can help you in a variety of ways. First, if you’re supposed to do an easy run at a particular pace according to your training program and it always feels really hard, then maybe you need to find a different training plan.

Similarly, it can help you schedule your workouts. You can’t be going hard every day because otherwise, you’re going to injure yourself. Knowing how many harder workouts you’ve done in a week will help you keep a balanced exercise regime.

Finally, maybe you’re following the guidelines that experts suggest like 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity per week or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity. Knowing what category your exercise fits into will help you in meeting these goals.

What Are Two Ways to Measure Exercise Intensity?

As we mentioned above, you can either measure exercise intensity by feel, which is more subjective but you can get really good at it.

Or by heart rate, which is more objective but doesn’t necessarily mean anything unless you’re well-versed in your own heart rate metrics.

By Feel

The first way to measure exercise intensity is by feel. You should ask yourself questions like the following:

● Does it feel easy, moderate, or hard?
● Can I hold a conversation?
● How hard am I breathing?
● How much am I sweating?

While the first question is somewhat subjective, you know your body better than anyone else. Could you keep up this activity for forever, or are you ready to stop?

The talk test, or determining if you can hold a conversation, is a great way to gauge intensity. For example, if you can sing, then it’s probably too easy for you.

If you’re able to talk and say the Pledge of Allegiance, then it’s moderate. If you can only say a few words, then it’s vigorous (hard).

Finally, tracking your breathing and sweating is a good determination of the intensity of an exercise.

If you can barely breathe and are sweating like a pig, then your intensity level is vigorous. If you have to keep track of your breathing and are sweating some, then it’s moderate.

By Heart Rate

In order to calculate exercise intensity based on your heart rate, you’re going to have to do more work than just ask yourself some questions.

You’ll first of all have to figure out your target heart rate and then measure your heart rate during an activity to determine your exercise intensity.

How Can I Measure My Heart Rate?

Although a GPS watch with a heart rate monitor is an easier way to measure heart rate, you don’t have to purchase a new device in order to do this.


First, you can take your heart rate manually. While you’re exercising, take a break and find your pulse either on your neck or your wrist. Count the number of beats in 10 seconds and multiply that number by 6.

If you want to do less math, you can take your pulse for 15 seconds and then multiply that number by 4 to calculate your beats per minute. Let’s say that you count 25 beats in 10 seconds. Multiply 25 by 6 and you get 150 beats per minute, which you can use to find your exercise intensity.

Heart Rate Monitor

If you don’t want to do math at all and would prefer a monitor, you can use either a chest strap or wrist heart rate monitor. The chest strap HRM is more accurate but can be uncomfortable. The wrist HRM is less accurate but comfortable.

Additionally, nowadays most GPS watches and fitness trackers come with heart rate monitors so it’s convenient and easy to be able to figure out what your heart rate during an exercise was without having to stop.

How Can I Use Heart Rate to Determine Intensity?

In order to determine intensity, you have to find your target heart rate zones. You will do this by figuring out your max heart rate. If you choose the age calculation test, you’ll subtract your age by 220. For example, 220-28 = 192, the estimated max heart rate for a 28-year-old.

This way to determine max heart rate, though, can be somewhat inaccurate, so you might want to try an intensity test instead. You can run for three minutes as hard as you can, rest for three minutes, and then run hard for three minutes again. Your max heart rate is the highest number from the second run.

Once you know your max heart rate, you can figure out your heart rate zones. The first is zone 1, which is 50-60% of your max heart rate—this is for recovery. Zone 2 (60-70%) is manageable while Zone 3 (70-80%) is picking up the pace. Finally, Zone 4 (80-90%) and Zone 5 (90-100%) is when you’re starting to get close to or even go all out.

How Can I Use Heart Rate Zones While Exercising?

Once you know these heart rate zones for you personally, you can use them for training. If you’re trying to get in 150 minutes of moderate activity per week, then you’ll want to make sure that your heart rate is in Zone 2 during your exercise.

If you want to increase your cardiovascular fitness and burn more calories, you can start incorporating intervals based on heart rate and include short stints of 15-60 second Zone 3 or 4 exercise with periods of Zone 1 or 2 recovery.

Final Thoughts

We all know that exercise—as with most things in life—requires balance and knowing your exercise intensity will help you maintain that balance. Making sure that your easy days are just that—easy—and your hard workouts are challenging will help you make the most of your exercise.

Remember: exercise is very personal, so it’s important to know the details for you. What is high intensity for you might be low intensity for someone else, so make sure you know what’s best for you individually.

The Wired Runner