The Benefits of Vigorous Intensity Exercise

Man running outside

Verywell / Ryan Kelly

Vigorous-intensity exercise—sometimes called high-intensity exercise or vigorous physical activity—is activity done with a large amount of effort, resulting in a substantially higher heart rate and rapid breathing. With this activity, exertion is considered hard to extremely hard, making it difficult to speak in full sentences. Activities like running, cycling, and singles tennis are usually classified as vigorous.

The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends a mixture of moderate-to-vigorous intensity activity for 40 minutes at a time, three or four days per week, to lower blood pressure and cholesterol.

Vigorous Physical Activity Examples

Many different types of exercise and sports can be performed at vigorous intensity, such as:

  • Jogging or running
  • Racewalking
  • Hiking uphill
  • Cycling more than 10 miles per hour or steeply uphill
  • Swimming fast or lap swimming
  • Dancing, fast dancing, and step aerobics
  • Strength training
  • Heavy gardening with digging, hoeing
  • Shoveling heavy snow
  • Martial arts
  • Playing sports with lots of running such as basketball, hockey, soccer
  • Singles tennis
  • Court sports such as handball, racquetball, squash

Measuring Exercise Intensity

Though you might have an idea when you hit a vigorous level, you can look to these specific markers to know for sure.

  • Talk test: The simplest way to determine if you're at a vigorous level of exercise is with a talk test. At vigorous intensity, you can speak only a few words at a time, not in full sentences.
  • MET and calories burned: The effort required for vigorous-intensity exercise is defined by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) as greater than 6 metabolic equivalents (MET), burning more than 7 kilocalories per minute. This is six times the energy cost of sitting quietly, 1 MET, which burns 1.2 kilocalories per minute.
  • Heart rate: Vigorous intensity is also defined by the AHA as exercise at a heart rate of 70% to 85% of a person's maximum heart rate. This varies by age and fitness level, so you should use a heart rate zone chart or calculator to find this number for your age and gender.
  • Rate of perceived exertion (RPE): If you were to rate your effort on the Borg perceived exertion scale (6 being no exertion to 20 being maximal exertion), vigorous intensity is 15 to 19, the range you would rate subjectively as hard, very hard, or extremely hard, according to the AHA.

Benefits of Vigorous Physical Activity

There are plenty of reasons to take your workout up a notch. Engaging in vigorous physical activity can provide many health advantages.

Lower Risk of Chronic Disease

A lack of exercise can lead to a greater chance of developing a chronic disease such as coronary heart disease, osteoporosis, and various types of cancer. For example, a 2012 study followed up with more than 44,000 men aged 40 to 75 after 22 years and concluded that vigorous exercise was associated with a lower risk of chronic disease among participants.

Improved Brain Health

All exercise, but particularly vigorous workouts, amps up blood flow in the brain and oxygenates frontal areas of the brain. This has been shown among school-age students—those who partook in vigorous exercise received better grades—as well as in older populations.

A 2017 review focusing on the link between exercise and Parkinson's disease or Alzheimer's disease found that when people 70 to 80 years old logged 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise per week within the last five years, they had a 40% lower chance of developing Alzheimer's compared to sedentary individuals in their age group.

Improved Mood

It's no surprise that exercise can improve your mood, but a 2015 study found a significant link between vigorous exercise and fewer depressive symptoms among more than 12,000 participants, while moderate levels of activity and walking had no impact on depression.

Weight Loss

Various studies have shown that vigorous exercise can be an effective way to shed unwanted pounds, specifically by decreasing abdominal fat, improving glucose/insulin metabolism, and boosting cardiorespiratory fitness, especially when compared to moderate levels of activity. Other studies have found similar results, including lower blood pressure and blood lipids in those who exercise vigorously.

How Much Vigorous Exercise Do You Need?

Health guidelines from the CDC, AHA, and other health authorities recommend the amount of moderate-to-vigorous intensity exercise needed to maintain health and reduce health risks. Vigorous intensity exercise is recommended for 75 to 150 minutes per week and can be alternated with moderate-intensity exercise (at least 150 to 300 minutes per week) to achieve health risk reduction goals.

A Word From Verywell

These guidelines are the minimum for maintaining good health. You can further improve your fitness and reduce your risk of chronic disease and weight gain by working out more than the recommended amount.

Many activity monitors will estimate the time you spend in moderate-to-vigorous physical activity so you can be more assured that you're meeting the minimum recommendations. But also make sure not to overexert yourself, particularly if you're a beginner. Listen to your body and consult with your doctor if you have questions about adding more intensity to your workout regimen.

8 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.
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  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. General physical activities defined by level of intensity.

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By Wendy Bumgardner
Wendy Bumgardner is a freelance writer covering walking and other health and fitness topics and has competed in more than 1,000 walking events.