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What is Vigorous Exercise?

By Tania Lakey
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Vigorous exercise is usually understood to be any sort of physical activity that increases a person’s heart rate and, importantly, keeps that increase steady for a sustained period of time, typically at least 15 minutes. Many health professionals recommend that people exercise at a vigorous level routinely, often a couple of times a week, but there isn’t usually any strict formula to follow to be sure that workouts hit this level. There is an element of subjectivity in all of this, though, since exercise that’s vigorous for one person might not actually be all that hard for someone else. A lot depends on individual fitness level, strength, and body type. The informal “talk test,” in which a person tries to carry on a conversation while exercising, can be one measurement. This test says that someone who can converse easily probably isn’t exercising vigorously. Heart rate monitoring can also lend some insight into just how hard a person is working.

Gradations of Exercise

There are many different ways to exercise, and many different levels of working out. Most experts agree that movement of any kind is beneficial, but depending on a person’s goals certain types may be more effective than others. People who are looking to improve their overall fitness, particularly those who are trying to lose weight or who are training for endurance events like marathons or long-distance swims, usually try to incorporate a certain amount of vigorous exercise into each day.

The most distinguishing feature of this sort of exercise is that, to most people, it really feels like work. A brisk walk or leisurely jog doesn’t usually qualify. It isn’t always defined by speed, though people at this level of exercise do tend to move more quickly.

Subjective Nature of Measurements

A person's body type and fitness level all play a part in the level and severity of any exercise activity, which can make it hard to set out universal guidelines. Walking uphill, for instance, may be vigorous activity for one person but may be moderate activity for the next. The common denominator is how the body handles the activity. If the body reacts by having an elevated heart rate with increased heavy breathing, then the person is likely performing vigorous exercise.

One of the easiest ways to determine exercise level is to use the so-called “talk test.” According to this test, a person's level of activity can be determined by the level and intensity at which the person can speak while performing exercise. If the subject is able to speak at length, then it generally is considered light to moderate activity; if the subject is only able to speak a few words in between heavy breaths, though, then it can probably be considered vigorous.

Heart Rate Indicators

It’s often more concrete to define vigorous activity by a person’s measured heart rate. The target heart rate for exercise in the “vigorous” category is typically is 85 to 95 percent of the maximum heart rate. Maximum heart rate is determined by taking a person's age and subtracting it from 220. For example, if a person is 30 years old, the maximum heart rate would be 190 beats per minute.

General Health Benefits

Many health experts, including advisers at the American Heart Association, recommend that people perform vigorous exercise for at least 20 minutes a day during at least three days per week. Not only can this sort of commitment improve general health and fitness, it can also bring a marked improvement in endurance. By pumping faster, the heart also receives a workout and can improve the body's blood circulation system.

Running is one of the easiest vigorous activities for many people, but it is by no means the only option. Swimming, martial arts, and team sports are all examples of this type of elevated exercise; dance and aerobics can also qualify if done with enough intensity. Routines can be made increasingly more difficult as the body becomes adjusted to the exercise level so that it may continue to be a beneficial workout for the body and the heart.

Risks and Precautions

Exceeding the target heart rate can be dangerous, though, and people need to pay attention to their bodies to avoid injury. Anyone who has difficulty breathing while working out should probably stop; the same goes for people who feel faint or out of breath. There is such a thing as pushing too hard, and exerting the body beyond its limits can bring a range of negative consequences.

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Discussion Comments

By anon126947 — On Nov 14, 2010

What exercise would you not do for someone with a aortic heart valve, because i work out with weights and have also been a fighter most of my life but got diagnosed with this. please let me know. Thank you.

By suntan12 — On Jul 17, 2010

Moldova- I have to agree with you there. Swimming is definitely an intense form of exercise. But I have always wanted to try martial arts.

I hear that Aikido not only offers a higher level of intensity in your workout, but also teaches self-defense which is great. I like the fact that they offer certain color belts based on your progress. It sounds like a fun challenge.

By Moldova — On Jul 17, 2010

Good article- I agree that swimming is definitely a vigorous exercise.

I am an avid jogger and jog about 3 miles a day for about four days a week, which is not difficult, but the minute that I try to swim laps I can feel the difference in intensity almost immediately.

After about two laps, which do not take much time, I have to catch my breath because my heart is beating so fast.

I enjoy swimming, but it is one of the most vigorous forms of exercise out there.

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