Exercise Intensity Defined: Easy, Moderate, Vigorous:

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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