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How to Use the Rate of Perceived Exertion Scale

March 16, 2017 by HealthyFamiliesBC

How to Use the Rate of Perceived Exertion Scale

A lot of us use some kind of fitness tracker nowadays. These devices tell us things like heart rate which can be used to measure physical activity intensity.

Knowing what level of intensity you are working out at is important because most people benefit from exercising at both moderate and vigorous intensity. Also, varying the intensity of your workouts, vigorous intensity some days and low intensity other days, helps you recover.

Aside from fitness trackers, there is another tool that you can use to measure your intensity. What’s really great about it is it’s free, simple to use, and doesn’t require batteries or software. It is called the Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) scale or sometimes called the Borg scale (after its inventor Gunnar Borg).

How It Works

The tool has two scales you can use; one is from 6 to 20 and the other from 0 to 10. Both are accurate and scientifically sound. Using an RPE scale to gauge your exercise intensity (low, moderate, or vigorous) has many advantages, one being that medication, heat, or how you feel that day won’t influence the measurement.

6 to 20 Scale

The reason the scale begins at 6 and ends at 20 is because these values represent the resting heart rate (about 60 beats per minute) and maximal heart rate (about 200 beats per minute) of a healthy young adult. So that means 6 would equal sitting at rest, while 20 would be all-out maximal exercise you can only do for seconds. On this scale:

  • 8-10 = activity of light intensity, like walking at a leisurely pace or slowly bike riding on a flat road.
  • 12-14 = moderate intensity, like jogging or walking briskly.
  • 16-18 = vigorous intensity, like playing basketball or interval training.

This scale works very well in an exercise setting.

0 to 10 Scale

The principal of the 0 to 10 scale is similar. The 0 represents rest and 10 represents all-out maximal exercise. The rest of the scale is as follows:

  • 2-3 = light intensity
  • 4-5 = moderate intensity
  • 7-8 = vigorous intensity

In my experience many people like this scale for its simplicity. It is also used in other ways, like when measuring difficulty breathing during exercise for those who have lung problems.

What I truly love about these RPE scales is that they force you to be in tune with your body. Here’s an example: You are training for a 5 km running event and have your heart rate zones established. You strap on your heart rate monitor and head to the gym to run on the treadmill because it’s too icy outside. Ten minutes into your run you notice that your heart rate is super high and not at the moderate zone you were aiming for. Odds are, being that you are indoors, it is hotter and your body is working harder to cool itself. This can make your heart rate higher. What can you do? Resort back to the RPE scale and focus on running at a pace that feels like 13 out of 20: right where you want to be.

Related blogs

What Exercise Intensity is Best for Your Workout?
Workout Smart: Aerobic Exercise and Training

Recommended resources

Harvard School of Public Health: The Borg Scale of Perceived Exertion



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