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How to: Know what's vigorous and what's moderate – sorting out the huff and puff of physical activity

Posted by Emily: June 2012 

When it comes to exercise people like to talk about exercise intensity – was it moderate or vigorous? High or low? Did it make you huff and puff? And will that make me buff?

Really, it's all about how hard your body is working during physical activity – something that will vary from person to person depending on your previous exercise experience and current level of fitness.

Take these examples:

Bob has set some exercise goals to help shift the spare tyre. His favourite past time is watching sport from the couch, so when he starts a gentle jogging program he will likely find the intensity fairly vigorous for the level he is starting at (something that will change over time as his fitness improves).

Whereas Ben, an ultra-marathon runner would find Bob's gentle jog a ‘walk in the park.' So to break into a sweat Ben is more likely to head off on one of his 10km runs.

Another way to think about it is the ‘talk' or ‘sing' test. If you can talk and sing without puffing at all then you're exercising at a low level. If you can comfortably talk, but not sing, then you're doing moderate-intensity activity and if you can't say more than a few words, well that's vigorous. (Note to update better music selection on iPod next time I try this around the park...)

Moderate-intensity physical activity

Will cause a light but noticeable increase in your breathing and heart rate.

Such as:
• brisk walking
• dancing
• gardening
• housework (mowing the lawn)
• walking animals
• carry/moving light loads.

Vigorous-intensity physical activity

The ‘huff and puff' stuff, requiring larger amount of effort, causing rapid breathing and substantial increase in heart rate.

Such as:
• running
• fast cycling
• fast swimming
• competitive sports and games (football, hockey, basketball, netball, etc.)
• aerobics
• carrying/moving heavy loads.

Health guidelines recommend aiming for at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity on most days.

Remember, if you have a medical condition or haven't exercised regularly in a long time then talk to your doctor before starting out any new exercise program (or start singing about the park).

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