How Hard Should I Work Out?

how hard you should work out for weight loss
Henrik Sorensen/Taxi/Getty Images

Ads for hard workouts often promise big results. But you don't always need to do intense exercise to see progress. Whether your goal is weight loss, improved fitness, or better performance in a particular sport, there is an important place for easy, moderate, and hard workouts in every exerciser's schedule. 

Low-Intensity Exercise

Easy workouts, or low-intensity exercise, increase your heart rate, but not to the point that you have to breathe heavily. On a scale of one to 10, low-intensity exercise ranks between four and six. Your heart rate during this type of activity should fall between 40% and 50% of your maximum heart rate. You should feel comfortable enough that you can continue the activity for a long period of time.

The value of this kind of activity is that you can do a lot of it. Low-intensity exercise improves range of motion in your joints, lowers your stress level, increases your total daily calorie expenditure, and provides recovery from hard workouts.

Some of your regular daily activities and chores may count as low-intensity exercise. For example, if you take your dog for a walk, go for a bike ride with the kids, or stroll to the grocery store to pick up dinner, these all fall under the low-intensity exercise category. If weight loss is your goal, these activities will help you stay active and burn extra calories throughout the day. 

Moderate-Intensity Exercise

Experts often recommend moderate exercise for improved health and weight loss. Moderate activity allows you to maintain your calorie-burning session for a longer period of time, more frequently. It improves cardiorespiratory endurance, reduces stress, improves heart health, and boosts metabolism, with less risk of injury or burnout than high-intensity exercise.

However, a moderate workout for one person could mean highly intense exercise for another. So how do you know if your workout falls into the moderate category?

When you are participating in moderate-intensity exercise, you should feel like you are working, but not working so hard that you want to quit in the next few minutes. You are breathing deeply but not gasping for breath. On a perceived exertion scale of one to 10, you should feel like you are working at a level of six to seven.

In terms of how much moderate-intensity exercise you need, The American College of Sports Medicine offers guidelines to help you meet specific goals:

  • Modest weight loss: Exercise at a moderate intensity between 150 and 250 minutes per week.
  • Clinically significant weight loss: Participate in moderate exercise for more than 250 minutes per week. If you combine diet and exercise to lose weight, engage in moderate-intensity exercise between 150 and 250 minutes per week.
  • Weight maintenance: To prevent weight gain after you've lost weight, engage in at least 250 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week.

High-Intensity Exercise

The most effective fat-burning workouts are the sessions that you can only maintain for a short period of time. But you can't do intense exercise every day. Because the workouts are very difficult, your body will require substantial recovery, both within the exercise session and in the days following the workout.

If you're exercising to lose weight, high-intensity workouts will do the trick. People who participate in high-intensity interval workouts are more successful at losing weight and burning fat. High-intensity exercise is also the most efficient, meaning you burn more calories in less time.

When you participate in high-intensity exercise, you are breathing very deeply and on the verge of gasping for breath. You should feel that you cannot maintain the activity for more than a few minutes. On a perceived exertion scale, you should feel like you're working at a level of eight to nine.

Because high-intensity exercises can only be maintained for a short period of time, they are often programmed into interval-style workouts. A popular form of interval training is called high-intensity interval training, or HIIT. To perform a HIIT workout, you combine bursts of intense exercise that last 30 seconds to several minutes with short recovery periods that last 30 seconds or more.

Plan a Workout Schedule

There are drawbacks to high-intensity exercise. These extreme sessions put you at higher risk for injury and burnout, and they require low-intensity recovery time in the days following the session. This is where careful exercise programming comes into play. Make sure you're scheduling your week to have rest days between those intense exercise sessions.

If you are healthy enough for physical activity at every intensity level, plan one or two hard workouts during the week. These short workouts will help you burn maximum calories in minimum time. You'll also build muscle to boost your metabolism during these sessions.

You do want to make sure that you aren't working out too hard too often. On the days following your hard workouts, give your body a rest by participating in a low-intensity exercise. The increased range of motion during these easy days will help your sore muscles recover more quickly. You will still increase your calorie burn for the day without taxing your body too much which can result in burn out or injury.

Fill in the rest of your workout week with moderate intensity sessions. Challenge yourself by making these sessions longer. The calorie-burning benefits from these moderate workouts come from the duration of the session, not necessarily from the intensity.

A Word From Verywell

Remember that if your goal is to lose weight, diet combined with exercise is the most effective method. Make sure you eat the right amount of lean protein, complex carbohydrates, fruits, vegetables, and healthy fat to fuel your workouts. Be mindful of your eating habits, measure your exercise intensity, and record the data in a weight loss journal to track your progress. These will all help improve and maintain results. 

5 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Brenner IKM, Brown CA, Hains SJM, Tranmer J, Zelt DT, Brown PM. Low-intensity exercise training increases heart rate variability in patients with peripheral artery disease. Biological Research For Nursing. 2020;22(1):24-33. doi:10.1177/1099800419884642

  2. Chiu C, Ko M, Wu L, et al. Benefits of different intensity of aerobic exercise in modulating body composition among obese young adults: A pilot randomized controlled trial. Health Qual Life Outcomes. 2017;15(1):168. doi:10.1186/s12955-017-0743-4

  3. Cox CE. Role of physical activity for weight loss and weight maintenance. Diabetes Spectr. 2017;30(3):157-160. doi:10.2337/ds17-0013

  4. Hottenrott L, Möhle M, Ide A, Ketelhut S, Stoll O, Hottenrott K. Recovery from different high-intensity interval training protocols: comparing well-trained women and men. Sports (Basel). 2021;9(3):34. doi:10.3390/sports9030034

  5. Lee D, Son JY, Ju HM, Won JH, Park SB, Yang WH. Effects of individualized low-intensity exercise and its duration on recovery ability in adults. Healthcare (Basel). 2021;9(3):249. doi:10.3390/healthcare9030249

Additional Reading

By Malia Frey, M.A., ACE-CHC, CPT
 Malia Frey is a weight loss expert, certified health coach, weight management specialist, personal trainer​, and fitness nutrition specialist.