Whether you are new to exercise, trying to increase your activity level in general, or simply looking for ways to change-up your current routine, you may be wondering what qualifies as low-, moderate- or high- intensity exercise, and whether there’s any point in participating in a low-intensity exercise program. While low-intensity exercise is sometimes dismissed as being “too easy,” there are some reasons to consider this type of activity.
First, how is exercise intensity defined?
- High intensity or vigorous intensity activities will cause you to be out of breath, your heart rate to increase significantly, you will sweat a lot, and be unable to say more than a few words at a time. A high-intensity work out may be completed in short bursts of intense exercise interspersed with rest periods (also referred to as interval training) or may be a continuous exercise session. Examples may include1,2,3
- Running or jogging
- High-intensity interval training (HIIT)
- Circuit training
- Aerobics, Zumba or dance fitness
- Indoor cycling (spin)
- Power yoga
- Cross-country skiing
- Biking 6 km/hour or greater
- Bodybuilding/heavy weightlifting
- Moderate-intensity activity causes your heart rate to go up, you to sweat a little and breathe harder, but you can hold a conversation while working out. Examples include
- Brisk walking, golfing,
- Riding a bike slower than 6 km/hour on flat ground
- Water aerobics
- Ballroom dancing
- Low-intensity activities are those that keep your heart rate at a lower, steady pace, cause no noticeable change in your breathing and that you can sustain for extended periods of time (30-60 minutes or more). Examples include:
- Barre, Pilates, or stretching
- Low-intensity yoga (hatha, yin)
- Light weightlifting
- Indoor rock climbing
- Light gardening or household chores
- Slow walks
It is important to keep in mind that what a person experiences as high, medium, or low intensity exercise will be partly due to their typical exercise and activity level and general physical fitness.
Note: Please ensure you adhere to all local and current public health orders regarding group fitness classes and gathering limits.
How can the intensity of exercise or activity be measured?
- The Talk Test: This is probably the simplest way of evaluating your exercise intensity, especially if exercising with a friend. You measure your level by rating how easily it is to hold a conversation.6,7
- Low intensity: you can talk and sing without any loss of breath or puffing
- Moderate intensity: you can talk easily but singing becomes more difficult
- High intensity: you can’t say more than a few words at a time without taking a breath and singing is not possible at all
- Target heart rate: You will often hear people talk about calculating your target heart rate to determine the level of intensity you should be working at. One way to calculate maximal heart rate is to use the formula: 220 – your age. Your target heart rate is then identified as a percentage of that number.
- High intensity activities use a target of 77 – 93%2,4,7 of your estimated maximal heart rate.
- Low intensity exercise uses a target of approximately 50% of your estimated maximal heart rate.2
Using technology such as a fitness app or a watch with a heart rate monitor or simply taking your heart rate throughout the activity are ways to measure your activity level.
- Rating of Perceived Effort (RPE): This 0–10-point rating scale requires no equipment and is based on the physical sensations that you experience while exercising. These include your ability to hold a conversation with your exercise buddy, how hard you are breathing, how tired your muscles feel, and how much you are sweating. The higher the number, the harder you are working. For example:6,7
- 0-1 – Baseline/at rest: no changes in how you feel,
- 2-5 – low intensity: you are starting to work a little bit harder and feeling a slight increase in your breathing rate, feeling a little bit warmer, but can hold a normal conversation,
- 6-7 - moderate intensity: you are working significantly harder and are starting to sweat, but can still sing or talk using shorter sentences,
- 8-10 - high intensity: you are working as hard as you can and can’t say more than 1-2 words at a time, are sweating heavily, and are at or nearing exhaustion.
Can low-intensity exercise improve my health?
Current research suggests that low-intensity exercise is effective for improving physical and cognitive health, is easier to stick with than high-intensity exercise, and may result in fewer injuries.8 To achieve similar health benefits, you will need to work longer at a lower intensity, but low-intensity exercises or activities can help improve your health in several ways.
- Cardiovascular: Any increase in activity level from your current baseline promotes
- A general increase in exercise tolerance
- Weight maintenance or reduction
- Lower blood pressure
- Reduced levels of “bad” cholesterol levels while increasing “good” cholesterol
- Improved ability to control blood glucose levels.9
- Muscular strength: Incorporating higher repetitions using lower resistance can result in increased overall muscle strength and endurance but is unlikely to cause you to “bulk up”.
- Balance and fall reduction: Low-intensity exercises such as Tai Chi or stretching have been shown to significantly improve flexibility, balance, coordination, and decrease the risk of falling.8
- Mental health: Research shows that regular physical activity can help10
- Prevent depression and anxiety disorders
- Reduce day-to-day stress
- Reduce the risk of cognitive decline as we age
- Improve cognitive ability related to memory, processing speed, and attention
- Boost academic performance in children and young adults
It is not always feasible to participate in a high-intensity exercise program and this level of activity may not be in line with your personal preferences. While it may be fair to say that high- and moderate-intensity exercise can result in greater health benefits with less time commitment, low-intensity exercise may be a better choice if you are new to exercise, have suffered an injury, or are faced with other restrictions. Regardless of the reasons you choose low-intensity exercises, they can be a perfect way to increase or maintain your activity level and overall health in a safe, enjoyable and effective way.
- Government of Alberta COVID 10 Stronger Public Health Measures: Business and Service Restrictions – Indoor Fitness. Available at https://www.alberta.ca/enhanced-public-health-measures.aspx#businessrestrictions
- Norton K, Norton L, Sadgrove D. Position statement on physical activity and exercise intensity terminology. Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport 13 (2010) 496–502. Available at http://www.activempowerment.com/uploads/1/5/0/1/15017960/essa-exercise-intensity-statement.pdf
- CESP Canadian 24-Hour Movement Guidelines Glossary of Terms. Available at https://www.csep.ca/en/guidelines/glossary-2017
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Target Heart Rate and Estimated Maximum Heart Rate. Available at https://www.cdc.gov/physicalactivity/basics/measuring/heartrate.htm
- Zuhl M. American College of Sports Medicine. Tips for monitoring aerobic exercise intensity. Available at https://www.acsm.org/docs/default-source/files-for-resource-library/exercise-intensity-infographic.pdf?sfvrsn=f467c793_2
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Measuring Physical Activity Intensity. Available at https://www.cdc.gov/physicalactivity/basics/measuring/index.html
- Victoria State Government Department of Health. Better Health: Exercise intensity. Available at https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/HealthyLiving/exercise-intensity
- Tse, A.C.Y., Wong, T.W.L. & Lee, P.H. Effect of Low-intensity Exercise on Physical and Cognitive Health in Older Adults: A Systematic Review. Sports Med - Open 1, 37 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1186/s40798-015-0034-8 Available at https://sportsmedicine-open.springeropen.com/articles/10.1186/s40798-015-0034-8
- Myers J. Exercise and Cardiovascular health. Circulation Vol. 107 (1). Jan 2003. Available at https://www.ahajournals.org/doi/10.1161/01.CIR.0000048890.59383.8D
- Canadian Psychological Association: “Psychology Works” Fact Sheet: Physical Activity, Mental Health and Motivation. Available at https://cpa.ca/docs/File/Publications/FactSheets/PsychologyWorksFactSheet_PhysicalActivity_MentalHealth_Motivation.pdf