How Hard Is Moderate Exercise? Not As Hard As You Might Think


No pain, no problem: A brisk walk is enough to qualify as moderate exercise for most people. (David Jakle/Corbis)

Working out doesn’t have to be hard work — and moderate activity is much better than none at all. The problem: Many people overestimate moderate exercise intensity, reports recent research from the University of Manitoba, which can be a deterrent from getting off the couch.

A study published by the Canadian team last year found that 80 percent of inactive older adults couldn’t tell when a workout qualified as moderate intensity activity. The researchers wanted to see if active young adults fared any better.

In the new study, researchers recruited 51 regularly active adults from the university’s fitness facility. The experts asked each person to run or walk on a treadmill at an effort level that the subjects felt was a moderate intensity. The participants could adjust the treadmill’s incline and speed until they found the right pace, which they had to keep steady for five minutes so that researchers could get accurate heart rate readings.

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The heart rate data showed that 80 percent of subjects were actually exercising at a vigorous, not moderate, intensity. “This is great news because people are doing more than what’s needed,” study author Danielle Bouchard, PhD, told Yahoo Health. “And it’s also great because we know that vigorous intensity exercise has more health-related benefits than working out at a moderate intensity.”

People who avoid exercise because it feels too difficult may be encouraged by the study’s findings, which suggest that moderate activity might be easier than many people think, Bouchard said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention currently recommend that adults clock at least 150 minutes of moderate activity per week or 75 minutes of vigorous activity per week. You can also do some combination of both. The guidelines account for the fact that vigorous activity confers additional health benefits, such as strengthening your heart, in less time.

In contrast to Bouchard’s results, other research has found that people overestimate how hard they’re working. A study released earlier this year in PLOS One asked people to walk or jog at three different effort levels: light, moderate, and vigorous. On average, subjects didn’t work hard enough to meet heart rate recommendations for moderate and vigorous exercise. But there was also a big difference from person to person, with some running too hard and others going too easy.

"I think people are all over the map is the short of it," said exercise physiologist Tom Holland, author of Swim, Bike, Run, Eat. “People are just confused about what’s moderate and what’s hard. Weekend warrior types tend to train in that gray area, so it’s not really easy, it’s not really hard, and they could get much more out of it.”

A brisk walk is usually enough to raise your heart rate into the moderate-activity zone. Add short bursts of speed and play around with your pace to burn more calories and make it more interesting, Holland told Yahoo Health. “For basic heart health, walking is just one of the easiest, simplest, most efficient ways to get your cardiovascular exercise in,” he added.

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How to choose the right workout intensity
Using a heart rate monitor is the most accurate way to know that you’re hitting the right pace. If you have the gadget, stay within 50 to 70 percent of your maximum heart rate for moderate activity, and 70 to 80 percent of your max for vigorous workouts.

To find your maximum heart rate, head to a steep hill, Holland told Yahoo Health. Warm up for 10 minutes, then run up the hill for 30 seconds and take your heart rate. Walk slowly down the hill. Do that three times, and use the highest number you see as your max heart rate. (Don’t use the old 220 minus your age formula, which is wildly inaccurate for a majority of people.)

You can also think of moderate activity as a 6 on a scale from 1 to 10, where 1 is very easy and 10 is incredibly hard. This method isn’t entirely accurate, Bouchard said, but it’s your best option if you don’t own a heart rate monitor. Her team is currently working on new ways to help people measure their workout intensity more easily by using tools like pedometers and walking pace.

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