Moderate-Intensity Level Exercise

How It Feels and How to Achieve It

Women power walking exercising on sunny path in autumn park
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Health guidelines from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the American Heart Association give a prescription for the kind and amount of exercise needed for the best health benefits: Moderate-intensity aerobic exercise for 30 minutes a day for five days a week (or a total of two hours and 30 minutes per week). This moderate exercise can be as simple as brisk walking.

Physical activity needs to continue for at least 10 minutes to be considered a session of exercise. So you can break up your 30 daily minutes into two to three shorter sessions, each at least 10 minutes long. As you build your ability to exercise, aim to get even more moderate activity. If you can boost your moderate aerobic exercise time to 300 minutes (five hours) per week you will have even more health benefits, according to the government guidelines.

Measuring Exercise Intensity

A moderate level of activity noticeably increases your heart rate and breathing rate. You may sweat, but you are still able to carry on a conversation. You can talk, but you can't sing. You can feel you are exercising compared with doing a daily activity such as walking at an easy pace, but you are not huffing and puffing. You can use a couple of different scales to measure your exercise intensity.

Heart Rate

The CDC defines the moderate-intensity heart rate zone as 50% to 70% of maximum heart rate. Your maximum heart rate varies by age; use a heart rate zone chart or calculator to determine yours. To measure your heart rate, you can take your exercise pulse or use a heart rate monitor, an app, or a fitness band or smartwatch.

METs

The term "MET" is an abbreviation for "Metabolic Equivalent for Task," and it refers to the amount of oxygen the body uses during physical activity. By assigning METs to an activity, we can compare the amount of exertion an activity takes, even among people of different weights.

During moderate physical activity, your breathing and heart rate become more rapid and your body burns about 3.5 to 7 calories per minute (this depends on your weight and fitness level). For reference, your body uses 1 MET for basic functions, like breathing. When you get to 7 METs of effort, your physical activity is considered vigorous. So the spectrum is:

  • 1 MET: At rest
  • 2 METs: Light activity
  • 3-6 METs: Moderate activity
  • 7 or more METs: Vigorous activity

Perceived Exertion

You can also check your activity level using the Borg Rating of Perceived Exertion (or RPE). Using this scale means monitoring how you feel about your own activity level. At one end of this 20-point scale would be absolute stillness; at the top, sprinting as hard as you can. An RPE from 11 to 14 is considered moderate activity.

  • 6: No exertion (sitting still or sleeping)
  • 7-8: Extremely light exertion
  • 9-10: Very light exertion
  • 11-12: Light exertion
  • 13-14: Somewhat hard exertion
  • 15-16: Heavy exertion
  • 17-18: Very heavy exertion
  • 20: Maximum exertion

Kinds of Moderate Intensity Exercise

There are many activities which are generally counted as moderate-intensity exercise. Here are some of the most common ones:

If You Have Mobility Challenges

If you are not able to use your legs, you can achieve moderately-intense exercise by using a manual wheelchair or a handcycle (ergometer), in addition to swimming or water aerobics. If you can use your legs but you don't tolerate walking or jogging, try bicycling or swimming.

What Doesn't Count?

An easy walk of under 10 minutes doesn't count as moderate-intensity aerobic activity. You may accrue over 10,000 steps per day on your pedometer, but unless you do some sessions of 10 minutes or more at a brisk pace, you haven't met your daily exercise goal.

Many activity monitors, pedometers, and smartwatches track continuous movement at a pace they consider to be right for achieving moderate-intensity exercise to vigorous-intensity exercise. They report this as exercise minutes and exercise calories burned. It is a good way to check and be sure you are getting enough exercise of the right kind.

Add Moderate Intensity Exercise to Your Day

Build moderate activity into your lifestyle by walking briskly for at least 10 minutes at a time. Start by walking at an easy pace for a couple of minutes. Then pick up the pace for 10 minutes. Try to walk during work breaks or lunch, and/or before or after the workday.

You can walk indoors (at the mall, or on a track at the gym), outdoors, or on a treadmill. Using good posture and walking technique will make it easier to achieve a brisk pace. After you are comfortable walking briskly for 10 minutes at a time, you can begin to extend your walking time. Enjoy different walking workouts for variety, varying the intensity with bursts of walking faster, jogging intervals, or adding hills or treadmill incline.

You may discover that you can't walk fast enough to boost your heart rate into the moderate-intensity zone. If so, consider cycling, swimming, or using an elliptical trainer to achieve a higher heart rate.

A Word From Verywell

Enjoying moderate physical activity will help keep your body in working order. Don't be distressed if you can only do a little at first. Give yourself time to build your endurance. Then make the time each day for the activities you like best.

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