Exercise intensity

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Exercise intensity refers to how much energy is expended when exercising. Perceived intensity varies with each individual. It has been found that intensity has an effect on what fuel the body uses and what kind of adaptations the body makes after exercise. Intensity is the amount of physical power (expressed as a percentage of the maximal oxygen consumption) that the body uses when performing an activity. For example, exercise intensity defines how hard the body has to work to walk a mile in 20 minutes.[1]

Measure of Intensity[edit]

Heart Rate is typically used as a measure of exercise intensity.[2] Heart rate can be an indicator of the challenge to the cardiovascular system that the exercise represents.

The most precise measure of intensity is oxygen consumption (V02). V02 represents the overall metabolic challenge that an exercise imposes. There is a direct linear relationship between intensity of aerobic exercise and V02. Our maximum intensity is a reflection of our maximal oxygen consumption (V02max). Such a measurement represents a cardiovascular fitness level.[3]

V02 is measured in METs (mL/kg/min). One MET, which is equal to 3.5ml/kg per minute, is considered to be the average resting energy expenditure of a typical human being. Intensity of exercise can be expressed as multiples of resting energy expenditure. An intensity of exercise equivalent to 6 METs means that the energy expenditure of the exercise is six times the resting energy expenditure.[4]

Intensity of exercise can be expressed in absolute or relative terms. For example, two individuals with different measures of VO2max, running at 7 mph are running at the same absolute intensity (miles/hour) but a different relative intensity (% of VO2max expended). The individual with the higher VO2max is running at a lower intensity at this pace than the individual with the lower VO2 max is.[5]

Intensity Levels[edit]

Exercise is categorized into three different intensity levels. These levels include low, moderate, and vigorous and are measured by the metabolic equivalent (METs). The effects of exercise are different at each intensity level (i.e. training effect). Recommendations to lead a healthy lifestyle vary for individuals based on age, weight, and existing activity levels. “Published guidelines for healthy adults state that 20-60 minutes of medium intensity continuous or intermittent aerobic activity 3-5 times per week is needed for developing and maintaining cardiorespiratory fitness, body composition, and muscular strength.”[6]

Physical Activity MET
Light Intensity Activities < 3
sleeping 0.9
watching television 1.0
writing, desk work, typing 1.8
walking, 1.7 mph (2.7 km/h), level ground, strolling, very slow 2.3
walking, 2.5 mph (4 km/h) 2.9
Moderate Intensity Activities 3 to 6
bicycling, stationary, 50 watts, very light effort 3.0
walking 3.0 mph (4.8 km/h) 3.3
calisthenics, home exercise, light or moderate effort, general 3.5
walking 3.4 mph (5.5 km/h) 3.6
bicycling, <10 mph (16 km/h), leisure, to work or for pleasure 4.0
bicycling, stationary, 100 watts, light effort 5.5
Vigorous Intensity Activities > 6
jogging, general 7.0
calisthenics (e.g. pushups, situps, pullups,jumping jacks), heavy, vigorous effort 8.0
running jogging, in place 8.0
rope jumping 10.0

Fuel Used[edit]

The body uses different amounts of energy substrates (carbohydrates or fats) depending on the intensity of the exercise and the heart rate of the exerciser. Protein is a third energy substrate, but it contributes minimally and is therefore discounted in the percent contribution graphs reflecting different intensities of exercise. The fuel provided by the body dictates an individual's capacity to increase the intensity level of a given activity. In other words, the intensity level of an activity determines the order of fuel recruitment. Specifically, exercise physiology dictates that low intensity, long duration exercise provides a larger percentage of fat contribution in the calories burned because the body does not need to quickly and efficiently produce energy (i.e., adenosine triphosphate) to maintain the activity. On the other hand, high intensity activity utilizes a larger percentage of carbohydrates in the calories expended because its quick production of energy makes it the preferred energy substrate for high intensity exercise. High intensity activity also yields a higher total caloric expenditure.[7]

This table outlines the estimated distribution of energy consumption at different intensity levels for a healthy 20 year old with a Max Heart Rate (MHR) of 200.

Intensity (%MHR) Heart Rate (bpm)  % Carbohydrate  % Fat
65-70 130-140 15 85
70-75 140-150 35 65
75-80 150-160 65 35
80-85 160-170 80 20
85-90 170-180 90 10
90-95 180-190 95 5
100 190-200 100 -

These estimates are valid only when glycogen reserves are able to cover the energy needs. If a person depletes glycogen reserves after a long workout (a phenomenon known as "hitting the wall") or during a low carbohydrate diet, the body will shift into ketosis and use mostly fat and muscle for energy. Intermittent fasting can be used to train the body to shift easily into ketosis.


  1. ^ The President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports - Publications. (n.d.). President's Council on Fitness, Sports & Nutrition . Retrieved April 5, 2011, from http://www.fitness.gov/fitness.htm
  2. ^ VO2max: what do we know, and what do we still need to know Levine, B.D. Institute for Exercise and Environmental Medicine, Presbyterian Hospital of Dallas, TX 75231. The Journal of Physiology, 2008 Jan 1;586(1):25-34. Epub 2007 Nov 15.
  3. ^ Vehrs, P., Ph.D. (2011). Physical activity guidelines. In Physiology of exercise: An incremental approach (pp. 351-393). Provo, UT: BYU Academic Publishing.
  4. ^ Vehrs, P., Ph.D. (2011). Physical activity guidelines. In Physiology of exercise: An incremental approach (pp. 351-393). Provo, UT: BYU Academic Publishing.
  5. ^ Vehrs, P., Ph.D. (2011). Physical activity guidelines. In Physiology of exercise: An incremental approach (pp. 351-393). Provo, UT: BYU Academic Publishing.
  6. ^ Elmahgoub, S. S., Calders, P., Lambers, S., Stegen, S. M., Van Laethem, C., & Cambier, D. C. (2011). The effect of combined exercise training in adolescents who are overweight or obese with intellectual disability: The role of training frequency . Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research , 25(8), 1.
  7. ^ Vehrs, P., Ph.D. (2011). Physical activity guidelines. In Physiology of exercise: An incremental approach (pp. 351-393). Provo, UT: BYU Academic Publishing.