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Exercise Intensity Defined: Easy, Moderate, Vigorous:

October 13, 2009

By Olivia C. Rossi, RN, MSN, ACSM
Your Personal Trainer

Do you know the difference between easy, moderate and vigorous exercise?  Do you know how hard you are exercising or if you are doing enough to meet your goals?   The core recommendations of the American College of Sports Medicine and the American Heart Association for physical activity guidelines state that:  “To promote and maintain health, all healthy adults aged 18 to 65 need moderate-intensity aerobic (endurance) physical activity for a minimum of 30 minutes on five days each week or vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity for a minimum of 20 minutes on three days each week . . . It should be noted that to lose weight, 60 to 90 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity may be necessary.  The 30-minute recommendation is for the average healthy adult to maintain health and reduce the risk of chronic disease.” 1

They go on to say that combinations of moderate and vigorous exercise can be performed such as walking briskly for 30 minutes twice a week and then jogging for 20 minutes on two other days of the week.   Moderate activity such as a brisk walk is the equivalent of working hard enough to increase your heart rate but still being able to talk.  Vigorous activity, such as jogging, will increase your heart and breathing rates while making it more difficult to carry on a conversation.

With these guidelines as a backdrop, I’d like to further define intensity levels using the basic unit of exercise, the MET, or Metabolic Equivalent.  One MET is equivalent to the amount of energy or calories your body uses per minute while sitting peacefully at rest.  That equates to approximately 60 calories per hour for a woman and 70 for a man.  MET levels increase as the intensity of your activity or exercise increases.  So, with the MET as your basic unit of reference, all other activities can be classified as multiples of one MET.  This includes occupational, household, rehabilitation, recreational and athletic activities.  This is how you can specifically know if you are doing easy, moderate or vigorous exercise.

Let’s look at the intensity levels of various activities and exercises based on the MET.  Using these definitions, you can determine your own level of activity.

”    Easy or light activities are defined as less than 3 METS.  Examples of light activities are walking 2-miles per hour (2.5 METS), golfing with a cart, or playing piano.
”    Moderate activities are defined as 3-6 METS and include such activities as walking 15 minutes/mile (5 METS), stationary cycling at 50 Watts (3 METS) or bicycling at 8-miles/hour (5 METS).
”    Vigorous activities are defined as greater than 6 METS.  These include jogging 5-miles/hour (8 METS), running 6-miles/hour (10 METS), bicycling 12-13 miles/hour (8 METS) and aerobic stepping, 6-8 inches (8.5 METS).

As a cardiac rehabilitation nurse and an ACSM Certified Clinical Exercise Specialist and Personal Trainer, I will leave you with this quote from the American College of Sports Medicine’s Health and Fitness Journal which is based on recent research suggesting that vigorous exercise may be more beneficial than moderate exercise including greater improvements in aerobic fitness and greater reduction in coronary artery disease risk.

Individuals interested in increasing their fitness and gaining additional cardio-vascular benefits should progress to a vigorous level of intensity, providing they can do so safely.  Individuals with symptoms or disease should not consider vigorous-intensity exercise until having completed a physician-approved, moderate-intensity exercise program and obtained further clearance to increase intensity. 2

Understanding what defines easy, moderate and vigorous exercise intensities can help you to know where to begin and where to go with your own fitness program.  It provides you with specific guidelines for progressing and for measuring your progress along the way.  Exercise should be something you like to do and something that you will continue to do on a regular, consistent basis . . . for life.  Mix it up, have fun.   Take care of yourself.  Stay fit.  You are wonderfully made.

1  ACSM’s Physical Activity and Public Health Guidelines
2 ACSM’s Health & Fitness Journal, September/October 2006
Wellsource, Inc. 2008.  MET Levels of Common Recreational Activities.

Yours in fitness,

Olivia C. Rossi, RN, MSN
Certified Clinical Exercise Specialist, ACSM
Certified Personal Trainer, ACSM

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Discuss this article

Kay October 13, 2009

Playing piano as a physical activity…I can do that! I bet Jerry Lee Lewis earned more than 3 METS when he pulled up a piano seat. Then again, he was never usually on the seat.

Lee October 13, 2009

How many METs would I earn to lift weights? Could that ever reach the level of vigorous if I can’t run?

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Dona October 13, 2009

I use the stationary bike instead of running, I now have some additional guidelines to follow. Thanks for the article.

Ally October 13, 2009

Thanks Olivia for once again having a very helpful and useful article. Will use the information in my own workout.

Suz October 13, 2009

I switched form a stationary bike from a treadmill walking machine, and the threatof falling off the treadmill seemed to motivate me more than the self-powered bike. It is more quieter though, yet I am more bigger.

Winnie October 13, 2009

Is it more quieter because it is self-powered or because it is not used?

Olivia October 13, 2009

Lee, I’ll get back to you later with more specifics about weight lifting and MET levels. Just to let you know, there is a difference between weight lifting, also called resistance training or strength training, and aerobic, or cardiovascular exercise. Each is a component of a balanced exercise program that also includes flexibility/stretching exercises. I wrote about the components of a balanced exercise program last fall. Check out September 24 and 30, 2008 Women’s report. Also, check back later today for an answer to your MET question. I’m on my way to work right now. Thanks for the question. Olivia

Olivia October 13, 2009

Lee, just to follow up on my earlier comments, it’s difficult to quantify MET levels for weight training. It depends on the weight used, how many reps and how many sets you do. Much of it depends on how long you do it and at what intensity, which determines the number of calories burned and the MET level. As a general guideline, a weight workout that is moderate to vigorous in intensity is classified as 6 METS, or moderate in intensity! Sorry, as I said, it’s hard to quantify and gets really complicated. Riding your bike at 8mph or running at 6mph is easier to quantify and assign a MET level. All I can suggest is that you do a balanced workout that includes aerobics, weight training and stretching.

Lee October 15, 2009

Wow! Not used to bloggers actually getting back to me. Thanks for the info Olivia!

Bea February 26, 2013

I am a 66 year old woman, have exercised for 23 years. I ride a stationary bike each time16 miles, takes me 40.50 minutes, 3 times a week and add about 10 leisure miles to that figure per week, totaling about 58/60 miles most weeks.. My weight rarely fluctuates, stays about 188/190. I’m 5 feet 8 inches, wearing size 12. I lift weights and use the machines in the gym on the 3 days while at the gym, averaging 90 minute workouts, consistently. I’m dedicated, do this religiously, but never drop any pounds. What is the better approach, add another day, ugh, or eat less ; caloric intake averages around 1,800. I come from a family full of diabetics , had gestational diabetes when pregnant , 100 years ago, but have no signs of the disease, sure it has to do with my fitness routine over the years.

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