The Guide to Moderate Intensity Exercise

Moderate-Intensity exercise is a well-documented, science-backed strategy for improving health, increasing fitness, and losing weight. 

This article explains moderate-intensity as defined by health professionals. It is based on the recommendations and advice of public health institutions and organizations such as the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), and Word Health Organization (WHO), which divide physical activity into light-, moderate-, and vigorous-intensity.123

What is Moderate Intensity Exercise?

When you’re exercising at moderate intensity, there’s a noticeable increase in heart rate and breathing, but you’re not out of breath.4 You’re breathing steadily and controlled, but slighter deeper and faster. You might also be lightly sweating after about 10 minutes.

There are different ways you can gauge how hard you’re exercising:

Perceived effort: On a simple 10-point scale of how hard exercise feels to you, moderate intensity exercise is a 5 or 6.56 This scale is known as the modified Rating of Perceived Exertion (RPE). On the original RPE scale, moderate intensity exercise is a 12 – 13, which is feels “somewhat hard”.7

Talk test: When you’re exercising at moderate intensity you can talk in short sentences, but you can’t sing. If talking is difficult and you can only say a few words at a time, you’re exercising at vigorous intensity.89

Heart rate: Moderate-intensity exercise is between 64% and 76% of maximum heart rate.1011 You can use a heart rate zone chart or heart rate calculator to find your maximum heart rate, which varies by age and fitness level. To measure your heart rate, you can use a heart rate monitor or simply take your pulse.

Read more: How to measure exercise intensity

What are Examples of Moderate Exercise?

The intensity of physical activities can be rated using something called metabolic equivalent of task (MET). One MET is equal to the amount of energy you burn while sitting at rest.

Types of Moderate Exercise

Moderate-intensity activities are those that burn 3 to just under 6 times more energy compared to when you are at rest, which is 3.0 – 5.9 METs.1213

Examples of moderate-intensity activities include:14151617

  • Brisk walking (2.5 to 4 miles per hour, about 100 steps per minute)18
  • Hiking
  • Nordic walking (moderate pace on flat terrain)
  • Swimming
  • Water aerobics
  • Cycling (slower than 10 miles per hour on flat terrain)
  • Elliptical machine
  • Active yoga (e.g. Vinyasa, power yoga)
  • Low-impact aerobics
  • Step aerobics (4-inch step)
  • Doubles tennis
  • Golf
  • Playing volleyball
  • Ballroom dancing
  • Home repair work
  • General gardening (e.g. raking the yard)
  • Household chores (e.g. mopping, vacuuming, washing windows)

These are just some 3 – 5.9 MET activities and not an exhaustive list. Generally, moderate-intensity exercise can include any rhythmic muscular activity using the body’s large muscles (whether recreational or occupational), that is similar in intensity to brisk walking.19 

For most young to middle-aged adults these activities will be strenuous enough to be moderate-intensity.20 That means there are some exceptions:

  • Low levels of fitness. Adults who are older, suffer with certain medical conditions, or have been inactive for some time may have lower levels of fitness. That means these activities may feel harder – more like vigorous exercise.21 Therefore, using perceived exertion, the talk test, or heart rate (i.e. how hard exercise feels) to gauge moderate intensity exercise may be a better guide.
    Light-intensity activities (less than 3 MET), such as walking slowly, still reap health benefits.2223 As your fitness levels grow and with the okay from a qualified health professional, you can steadily build up to moderate-intensity activities.24
  • High levels of fitness. If you’re have greater levels of fitness (e.g. you exercise regularly), these activities may feel relatively easy – more like light exercise. You can use heart rate, RPE, and the talk test to determine moderate intensity instead. You probably exercise above and beyond the minimum recommendations of the CDC and other public health organizations, which will lead to even greater health benefits.

What are the Benefits?

Moderate-intensity physical activity boasts a bevy of health benefits. According to research, regular moderate-intensity exercise has a positive effect on:

  • Cardiovascular disease. Reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease, including coronary heart disease (e.g. angina, heart attack), stroke, and heart failure.25

    Regular exercise ameliorates a variety of cardiovascular disease risk factors, including decreasing markers of inflammation, increasing HDL (good) cholesterol, and improving metabolic health.26272829 Exercise also decreases resting heart rate, lowers blood pressure, and improves blood flow to the heart muscle.303132

    These favorable effects reduce stress on the heart, improve cardiovascular function (in healthy people and those with cardiovascular disease), and boost overall survival.3334
  • Diabetes. Lowers the risk of developing impaired glucose tolerance, insulin resistance, and type 2 diabetes.35 Decreases hemoglobin A1c levels (indicator of blood sugar control), insulin resistance, triglycerides (indicator of diabetes), and blood pressure in people with type 2 diabetes.363738
  • Blood pressure. Lowers blood pressure and reduces the risk of developing high blood pressure. A single bout of exercise can reduce blood pressure post-workout for almost 24 hours, while regular exercise results in a more sustained reduction in blood pressure.394041
  • Cancer. Reduces the risk of cancer, including cancer of the breast, uterus (endometrium), colon, lung, stomach, esophagus, kidney, and bladder.42434445464748495051

    Moderate-intensity exercise exerts health benefits in cancer survivors, including improving fatigue, anxiety, depressive symptoms, physical function, and health-related quality of life.52 Furthermore, research suggests that exercise after cancer diagnosis increases survival in breast, colorectal, and prostate cancers.5354
  • Stress. Protects against the harmful effects of stress on physical and mental health. Exercise increases resilience to stress, making it easier to bounce back from stressful events.555657
  • Cognitive function. Causes positive structural and functional changes in the brain, and improves cognitive health. It has a beneficial effect on cognitive skills such as learning, memory, attention, mental processing speed, problem solving, decision making, and judgment.5859

    This improvement may occur in healthy people, as well as those with medical conditions that impair cognitive function, including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), schizophrenia, Parkinson’s disease, and stoke.60616263
  • Dementia. Lowers the risk of developing dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease. It may also improve cognitive function in those suffering with dementia or mild cognitive impairment.646566
  • Depression. Reduces risk of depression and also has an antidepressant effect in both healthy people and those with depressive disorders.

    In some people with mild-to-moderate depression, regular exercise may be as effective as medication or psychotherapy. Exercise alone isn’t enough for severe depression, but may be helpful as an adjunct to conventional treatment.676869707172
  • Anxiety. Decreases the likelihood of suffering with anxiety disorders. Exercise can reduce symptoms of anxiety and can help to ward off panic attacks. Even a single bout of exercise can lessen anxiety.7374757677
  • Sleep. Improves various aspects of sleep, including total time spent asleep, proportion of time spent awake in bed (trying to sleep), time it takes to get to sleep, time in deep sleep, sleep quality, and daytime sleepiness.7879
  • Energy. Boosts energy levels, reduces feelings of fatigue, and makes it easier to perform everyday tasks.80
  • Longevity. Regular exercise increases your chances of living longer. Research shows that it decreases the risk of dying from any cause.818283

    Any amount of physical activity is associated with a lower risk.84 Exercising for roughly 150 minutes per week reduces the risk of dying from any cause by 33%.85 Engaging in more than 150 minutes of exercise reduces the risk even further.86
  • Weight loss. Moderate intensity exercise helps you lose weight (especially in combination with reduced calorie intake), prevents weight regain after initial that weight loss, and can help you lose belly fat.87 Because you can do moderate-intensity workouts frequently, it is an effective way to lose weight.88

    As you get more fit, incorporate vigorous-intensity activities (e.g. walking, cycling, or swimming at faster pace; jogging; aerobics) and aim for the higher end of the recommended amount of exercise to achieve greater results.899091

If you have a medical condition, speak to your health care provider and get the green light, before starting an exercise program. They will also offer advice on the best types of exercise for you and how to progress at a safe pace.

How Much Moderate Exercise Should You Do?

These guidelines are the minimum recommended amount of exercise for good health, according to the CDC, AHA, ACSM, WHO and other health organizations.9293949596

Recommended Amount

To reap substantial health benefits aim for 150 – 300 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity a week. That’s the equivalent of 30 – 60 minutes a day, 5 times a week.

  • Alternatively, you can do 75 – 150 minutes per week of vigorous aerobic activity, or a combination of of moderate- and vigorous-intensity exercise. As a rule of thumb, 2 minutes of moderate-intensity activity is about the same as 1 minute of vigorous-intensity activity.
  • You can further increase your fitness, health, and weight loss by exercising more than 300 minutes per week.

You can divide up the time to suit your personal preferences and lifestyle. Bouts of exercise of any length count. For example, you may prefer mini-workouts, walking briskly several times a day for 5 minutes. Or you might prefer longer workouts, 3 days a week. It’s up to you.97

If you want to incorporate some vigorous exercise, try an interval workout where you alternate between moderate- and vigorous-intensity exercise. For example, you might walk briskly for 4 minutes and walk faster or jog for 1 minute, and repeat this several times.

It All Adds Up!

An old, now classic, British study showed that bus conductors who walked the aisles and climbed the steps of double-decker buses all day, were far less likely to suffer with heart disease than bus drivers, who were seated most the day. The same was true for cycling/ walking postmen.9899 So it really doesn’t matter when, where, or why you’re being physically active, it all improves health. To quote the CDC, “Anything that gets your heart beating faster counts”.100

Moderate-intensity physical activities can include recreational or occupational activities, commuting or traveling somewhere (e.g. walking or cycling), running errands or doing household chores, playing sports or planned exercise. Everyday, run-of-the-mill things such as carrying bags, walking the dog, and climbing stairs all count.

Moderate-intensity exercise allows you to establish a foundational level of fitness, also known as “base fitness”. Work towards a goal of being able to comfortably and regularly exercise at moderate-intensity 3 to 5 times a week for 20 to 60 minutes continuously for several weeks. This leads to important physiological and structural adaptations of the heart, lungs, muscle, and joints, which lay the foundation of exercising at higher intensity.

Remember, Rome was not built in a day. Always start slow, and build up intensity and duration gradually. Even a little exercise can improve health.101

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