What Does RPE Tell You About Your Workouts?

Sweaty male runner running on sunny urban footbridge at sunrise

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Exercise intensity is important to gauge because it can tell you whether you are working too hard or not working hard enough. One common way to do this is by using a Rating of Perceived Exertion (RPE).

The talk test, your target heart rate range and the Borg Rating of Perceived Exertion (RPE) are all methods for determining how hard you are exercising. Learn how to use your RPE to determine whether you are exercising in the moderate-intensity or vigorous-intensity zones.

What Is Perceived Exertion?

Perceived exertion is how hard you feel your body is working based on physical sensations experienced during exercise. For instance, when you're exercising your heart beats faster, your breathing becomes faster and deeper, you work up a sweat, and your muscles begin to fatigue.

These feelings are not objective (as they would be if you actually measured your heart rate, for example). But they can give you an estimate of your heart rate and your exercise intensity zone—without any equipment at all.

What Is RPE?

The Rating of Perceived Exertion (RPE) scale is based on a range between 6 and 20, with 6 being the least amount of exertion and 20 being the maximum level of exertion. It was developed in 1982 by Swedish researcher Gunnar Borg to determine an individual's level of exertion during physical activity.

To rate your perceived exertion when you exercise, don't focus on just one sensation. Instead, you'll want to get a general sense of how hard you are exercising by assessing multiple sensations like your breathing pattern, amount of sweat, and level of fatigue. Use your feelings of exertion rather than measures such as speed while running or cycling or comparing yourself to someone else. Then assign your exertion a number from 6 to 20 on the Borg RPE scale.

The scale starts at 6, which means you feel no exertion, similar to simply standing still or sitting. Level 9 is what you feel like when you are walking at an easy pace. At level 12 to 14 you are in the moderate-intensity zone and it feels somewhat hard, as when walking briskly or jogging at an easy pace. At level 15 and above you feel heavy exertion and you are in the vigorous-intensity zone, as when running.

The Borg RPE Scale

You may wonder why the Borg RPE scale starts at 6 and goes to 20. This is because it is designed to give you a fairly good estimate of your actual heart rate during activity. To do this, multiply your RPE by 10 to get an estimated heart rate.

For example, if your RPE is 12, then 12 x 10 = 120 beats per minute.

This scale was designed for the average healthy adult. Your age and physical condition affect your maximum heart rate, and therefore your heart rate zones for different levels of intensity. You should check which heart rate matches which zone for you personally.

RPE Exertion Felt
6 No exertion at all (seated meditation)
7 Extremely light (gentle yoga)
8
9 Very light (easy walking slowly at a comfortable pace)
10
11 Light (lifting medium weights or dumbbells)
12
13 Somewhat hard (kettlebell swings)
14
15 Hard (running)
16
17 Very hard (deadlifts with heavy weights)
18
19 Extremely hard (high-intensity interval training)
20 Maximal exertion (sprinting)

The Modified RPE Scale

Many people find the modified RPE scale with its 0–10 numbering easier to assess their level of exertion and calculate their estimated heart rate. The main difference between the two scales aside from the numerical ranges is that the Borg RPE scale is a measure of exertion to determine heart rate and the modified scale is measured by an individual's breath—from deep breathing to shortened breaths.

For example, an RPE of 1 would mean that a person could easily sing or carry on a conversation for hours, while an RPE of 10 would mean that they could not talk or breathe deeply while engaged in a burst of maximum physical activity.

0 No activity (rest)
 1  Very light activity (gentle stretching)
 2  
 3  Light activity (walking slowly)
4
5 Moderate activity (brisk walking)
6
7 Vigorous activity (jogging)
8
9 Very hard activity (running)
10 Maximum activity (shuttle run drills)

The RPE scale is a recent modification of the original Borg RPE scale, which uses a measure of perceived exertion that ranges from 0 to 10 instead of 6 to 20.

Why Is the RPE Useful?

There are a few reasons why people might want to use the RPE, but its primary purpose is to give you an indicator of how hard you're working when you exercise. This can help you achieve your fitness goals. Additionally, the RPE is useful because:

  • You can quickly determine your heart rate. If you don't have a heart rate monitor the RPE is a simple tool to provide you with an estimate.
  • It’s a fairly accurate way to measure heart rate. If your estimated heart rate is too low or too high, you can adjust your level of exertion accordingly.
  • It’s a useful way for people on certain medications to determine their exertion level. If you're on blood pressure medication or have a heart condition, your doctor may recommend that you monitor your level of exertion versus your heart rate.

The Borg RPE is useful for people who take medications that affect their heart rate or pulse, since measuring their heart rate is not a good indication of their exercise intensity.

How to Use the RPE

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity per week for most adults. This includes any activity that gets your heart pumping such as cycling, swimming, brisk walking or jogging, and even gardening. If that seems like a lot, the good news is you can spread out your exercise over the course of a week. Just 30 minutes a day 5 days a week would do the trick. The CDC also recommends two days a week of strength-training activities like weight lifting or pushups. 

After warming up at a light level of exertion, begin your moderate-intensity workout. After a few minutes, assess your RPE from the Borg scale. If you are still at an RPE under 12, pick up your pace or add resistance to increase your intensity. A walker, runner, or cyclist would do this by going faster, seeking out inclines, or adding high-intensity intervals. If you are feeling an intensity of 19, you might want to slow your pace or decrease the resistance until you are back in the vigorous-intensity or moderate-intensity zone.

Both the Borg and modified RPE scales can be used to ensure that people are getting the recommended amount of moderate-intensity activity each week. People can also use the RPE to achieve new fitness milestones.

A Word From Verywell

It's important to listen to your body during any physical workout. Pay attention to how you're feeling physically and know the difference between when it's time to back off versus push yourself a little harder. The RPE scale can help you achieve this. Always aim to strike a balance between feeling comfortable while still challenging yourself, and stop any activity that causes physical pain. If you're just starting a new fitness routine, remember to check with your doctor first about what types of exercises are best suited for you to meet your goals.

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6 Sources
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  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Measuring Physical Activity Intensity Updated September 17, 2020.

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  6. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. How much physical activity do adults need? Updated October 7, 2020.