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How to Use the Perceived Exertion Scale During Your Workout

Exercise intensity is important to gauge because it can tell you whether you are working too hard or not working hard enough. One common way to do this is using a Rating of Perceived Exertion (RPE). The talk test, your target heart rate range, and the Borg Rating of Perceived Exertion (RPE) are all methods for determining how hard you are exercising. Learn how to use your RPE to determine whether you are exercising in the moderate-intensity or vigorous-intensity zones.

What Is Perceived Exertion?

Perceived exertion is how hard you feel your body is working. When you are exercising your heart beats faster, your breathing becomes faster and deeper, you work up a sweat, and your muscles begin to tire and complain. These feelings are not objective as when you actually measure your heart rate, but they can give you a number that is an estimate of your heart rate and your exercise intensity zone.

The Rating of Perceived Exertion (RPE) Scale

You should rate your perception of your exertion when you exercise. Don’t focus on just one sensation, get a general sense of how hard you are exercising. Use your feelings of exertion rather than measures such as speed while running or cycling or comparing yourself to someone else. Then assign your exertion a number from 6 to 20 on the Borg Rating of Perceived Exertion scale.

The scale starts at 6, which means you feel no exertion, similar to simply standing still. Level 9 is what you feel like when you are walking at an easy pace. At level 12 to 14 you are in the moderate-intensity zone and if feels somewhat hard, as when walking briskly or jogging at an easy pace. At level 15 and above you feel heavy exertion and you are in the vigorous-intensity zone, as when running.

RPE Exertion Felt
6 No exertion at all
7 Extremely light
9 Very light (easy walking slowly at a comfortable pace)
11 Light
13 Somewhat hard (It is quite an effort; you feel tired but can continue)
15 Hard (heavy)
17 Very hard (very strenuous, and you are very fatigued)
19 Extremely hard (You cannot continue for long at this pace)
20 Maximal exertion

How Borg RPE Reflects Heart Rate

You may wonder why the Borg RPE scale starts at 6 and goes to 20. This is because it is designed to give you a fairly good estimate of your actual heart rate during activity. To do this, multiply your RPE by 10 to get an estimated heart rate.

For example, if your RPE is 12, then 12 x 10 = 120 beats per minute.

This scale was designed for the average healthy adult. Your age and physical condition affect your maximum heart rate, and therefore your heart rate zones for different levels of intensity. You should check which heart rate matches which zone for you personally.

The Borg RPE is useful for people who take medications that affect their heart rate or pulse, since measuring their heart rate is not a good indication of their exercise intensity.

How to Use the Perceived Exertion Scale

After warming up at a light level of exertion, begin your workout. After a few minutes, assess your RPE from the scale. If you are still at an RPE under 12, pick up your pace or add resistance to increase your intensity. A walker, runner, or cyclist would do this by going faster, seeking out inclines, or adding high-intensity intervals. If you are feeling an intensity of 19 you might want to slow your pace or decrease the resistance until you are back in the vigorous-intensity or moderate-intensity zone.

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