Whatever level of exercise you are doing, it has benefit for health. However, knowing what heart rate you should be at for the biggest benefit can be challenging.
Moderate exercise is considered something that requires work but can be sustained for a longer period of time and you could carry on a conversation while exercising. Examples of moderate exercise include: walking, jogging, riding bike, dancing, etc. This heart range is usually described between 50-70% of your maximum heart rate
With vigorous exercise, you are working harder and can only sustain this intensity for shorter periods of time and carrying on a conversation would be difficult. Examples of vigorous exercise includes: sprints, race walking, hiking, shoveling, tennis, etc. This exercise range is generally considered between 70-85% of your maximal heart rate.
You can gauge where your heart rate is during exercise by wearing a heart rate monitor or by using a perceived exertion rating that coincides with heart rate. There are benefits for both moderate and vigorous exercise for weight loss, so doing both types of exercise is recommended.
How do you know what your heart rate is during exercise?
Wearing a heart rate monitor will show you what your heart rate is, but you can also estimate your heart rate based on how you feel.
If your heart rate is in the moderate zone, you should feel like you’re working “somewhat hard”, or on a rating of perceived exertion (RPE) scale a 12-14 on a scale from 6 to 20 (1). This should correlate for most people to be in a moderate intensity heart rate range.
If you’re aiming for your heart rate to be in the vigorous intensity range, you should be feeling like you’re working hard to very hard which would correlate to 15-18 on the RPE scale (2).
Moderate heart rate zone
If you want to be more specific for your workouts, there are many fitness apps or gear that can track your heart rate while exercising. There are general equations (3) to use to guide you into targeted heart rate ranges, but keep in mind there is individual variance within these estimates.
To get your maximal heart rate, take 220- your age.
For example, if someone is 50 years old, their estimated maximal heart rate would be 220- 50, 170 beats per minute. For moderate exercise heart rate, you would take 0.5 to 0.7 multiplied by 170. So, target heart rate for someone 50 years old would be 85-119 beats per minute.
Vigorous heart rate zone
To determine heart rate for exercise with vigorous intensity, you would take your estimated maximal heart rate multiplied by 0.7 to 0.85. Someone 50 years old with an estimated maximal heart rate of 170 beats per minute who wanted to be in a vigorous exercise intensity would be between 119 (170 x 0.7) to 145 (170 x 0.85) beats per minute.
As you continue to exercise, heart rate zones and intensities can change. Speaking with an exercise specialist can help you further determine your target exercise heart rate intensities during your weight loss process.
Benefits of moderate exercise
Moderate exercise intensity may be more tolerable compared to vigorous exercise for people who are just starting an exercise program. Moderate exercise intensity also relies more on fat as a fuel source and can be beneficial for weight loss.
A 2008 study (4) found that moderate and vigorous exercise had a similar impact on fat loss and preserving lean muscle in women who were part of a 20 week weight loss program.
A 2005 study (5) also found that moderate exercise and high intensity exercise both had similar results in improving insulin sensitivity in men after 24 weeks of exercise.
Moderate exercise is intended to be for longer durations of time and at a constant level. This is different than vigorous intensity exercise which brings the heart rate up to a higher level, but there are rest periods in between. This type of exercise can also be referred to as high intensity interval training (HIIT).
Benefits of vigorous exercise (HIIT)
While some studies have shown equal benefit between moderate and vigorous exercise on fat loss, some studies have shown more weight loss benefit from vigorous exercise. HIIT may also elevate metabolism hours after exercise.
A 2008 study (6) found that women who did HIIT exercise three times a week lost more body fat than women who did moderate exercise for the same amount of time.
A 2005 study (7) found that people who did high intensity exercise had significant change in cholesterol levels, but the moderate intensity exercisers did not. This suggests high intensity exercise may have more benefit for cardiovascular health.
HIIT is becoming more popular with some gyms devoted entirely to designing exercise classes around this type of training. Some people may do better with higher intensity, shorter duration exercise plans.
Conclusion: should you do moderate or vigorous heart rates during exercise?
There are health benefits to both moderate and vigorous exercise heart rate zones, and ideally a weight loss program will incorporate both types of exercise zones.
Some studies have suggested that HIIT may offer more benefit for weight loss and other health measures.
If you have any injuries or any previous or current health conditions, speak with your healthcare team for more individualized exercise guidelines.
You can determine your heart rate for exercise by knowing your estimated maximal heart rate, which is estimated to be 220- your age. From this number, you can multiply by 0.5-0.85 depending on if you want to be moderate intensity or higher intensity.
If you don’t have a heart rate monitor, you can gauge your heart rate based on a RPE scale. If you feel like you are working somewhat hard, you are most likely in a moderate heart rate zone.
If you feel like you are working hard or very hard, you are probably in a high intensity heart rate zone.