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How Hard Should You Work Out?

How hard should you work out?

By Erin Phelan

            How hard should you work out?

            This is a question that is relevant for any lifestyle athlete – someone with specific fitness goals in mind, focused on progress and small gains. We have to keep pushing ourselves. But what does this mean?

            Someone returning to fitness will have a very different starting point than someone who has been actively exercising; similarly, someone in their 70s will have their own “hard zond.” This is why the RPE scale works so well: we should come to a workout with the Rate of Perceived Effort (RPE) in mind : how hard you feel you are working.


There are four zones of effort:

  1. Comfortable – generally around a 4-6 out of 10.
  2. Challenging– moderate, just below vigorous – 6-7.5
  3. Hard– vigorous and intense, about 7.5-9
  4. Breathless – 9 to 10.

            If you are new to fitness you can experiment by walking laps – doing one lap at a challenging pace (yellow to orange), then one hard (orange to red), doing active recovery (green zone) in between. If take part in a metabolic conditioning class, recognize the difference between and 8 and a 9 out fo ten. The best thing about the RPE scale is that it is based on individual intensity.

           All we ever need to do is try out best. Work on training in the moderate (6) to hard (9) zone for 150 minutes weekly for the greatest physical and mental health benefits.

            And what about recovery? Quite simply – you have to listen to your body. While some coaches will tell you that you must have a recovery day, if that day comes and the sun is shining and you want to run or to do yoga or a weights class and your body feels strong, then listen to your body. One caveat: recovery is essential if you exercise hard 5-6 days a week – the muscles need a chance to recover at the cellular level. And remember: we want to work out for the right reasons  – a strong, healthy body that is making progress, and a healthy mind. Never workout because you feel you have to. Exercise because you know you will be better for it.

            Lastly: approach every workout with a goal – always have your why.

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