Monitoring Exercise Intensity with RPE


It’s very easy to move through workouts and exercise sessions without paying any attention to intensity.  What feels fairly easy one day can feel extremely hard another.  Depending on rest, hydration, stress, humidity, and many other variables, things can vary from one day to the next. But the important thing in the midst of all of that is that you are in fact still monitoring intensity. It’s important and I will tell you why. But first, how can we monitor exercise intensity?

Today there are many types of devices that are available to do this. From fitness trackers to high-end lab equipment, the most common way is to track heart rate in order to estimate how strenuous your exercise session is to your system.  And while we have many different tools to track exercise intensity on the market, I still go back to using the good-old Rating of Perceived Exertion.

Borg’s scale of Rating of Perceived Exertion is a simple numerical ranking used to gauge how hard you feel when you’re working out. For anyone who has ever been to the doctor or hospital and is familiar with the 1-10 pain rating scale (and associated smiley / sad faces) it’s kind of like that.  While it may seem outdated or simplistic, it has actually been tested and found to be reliable through many different studies.  The link I provided to the Centers for Disease Control provides a very basic overview of how you can use this scale.  I suggest reviewing it and incorporating it into your workout, even if you are using some type of external device.  I’m sure you’re asking yourself “if I have a $300 Garmin watch, why is this useful”?  For a few reasons:

  • Safety!  Even if you are using other means to track intensity, it is important to be tuned-in to how you are feeling. If you aren’t checking in with your body, it’s easy to over-exert!
  • Not everyone has a device, tracker, or heart rate monitor.  This can be done by anyone, anywhere.
  • For people who are very sedentary or at a higher risk of cardiovascular disease, using heart rate ranges may be too aggressive.
  • For people who are very fit, estimated heart rate ranges (based on age industry calculations) may not be enough to increase fitness or performance.
  • It’s important to pay attention to intensity in order to improve various components of fitness.  If you aren’t properly progressing and overloading, you aren’t going to see results.

So, where should your intensity be in order to be safe but make progress?  Good question.  Check back for my next post on estimating your exercise intensity.

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