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 kind?

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)

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.18 

For most young to middle-aged adults 3 – 5.9 MET activities will be strenuous enough to be moderate-intensity.19 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 3 – 5.9 MET activities may feel harder – more like vigorous exercise.


Benefits of Moderate Exercise

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.

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?

Recommended Amount of Exercise

These guidelines are the minimum recommended amount of exercise for good health, according to the CDC, AHA, ACSM, WHO and other health organizations.2021222324

How much exercise?

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.25

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.2627 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”.28

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.29



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