Using the Perceived Exertion Scale to Measure Workout Intensity

Women jogging in Central Park New York
LeoPatrizi / Getty Images

When exercising, it's important to monitor your intensity to make sure you're working at a pace that is challenging enough to help you reach your goals, but not so hard that you blow a lung. One way to do that is to use a Perceived Exertion Scale.?? It's often abbreviated as RPE—rating of perceived exertion. The standard scale that you will often see is the Borg Scale of Perceived Exertion, which ranges from 0-20. 

A Simpler RPE Scale

For the workouts we designed here, we use a simpler perceived exertion scale (RPE). You will see it listed next to exercise intervals in our cardio workouts. It's a little easier to remember as it only goes from zero to ten rather than the 20-point Borg Scale.

When you are exercising, ask yourself how comfortable you are, how hard you are breathing and how much sweat-effort you feel like you are expending. How easily you can talk, known as the talk test, factors into this scale and is a quick way to gauge effort.

RPE Levels of Perceived Exertion

  • Level 1: I'm watching TV and eating bonbons
  • Level 2: I'm comfortable and could maintain this pace all day long
  • Level 3: I'm still comfortable, but am breathing a bit harder
  • Level 4: I'm sweating a little, but feel good and can carry on a conversation effortlessly
  • Level 5: I'm just above comfortable, am sweating more and can still talk easily
  • Level 6: I can still talk, but am slightly breathless
  • Level 7: I can still talk, but I don't really want to. I'm sweating like a pig
  • Level 8: I can grunt in response to your questions and can only keep this pace for a short time period
  • Level 9: I am probably going to die
  • Level 10: I am dead

In general, for most workouts, you want to be at around Level 5-6. If you're doing interval training, you want your recovery to be around a 4-5 and your intensity blasts to be at around 8-9. Working at a level 10 isn't recommended for most workouts. For longer, slower workouts, keep your PE at Level 5 or lower.

Correlating Heart Rate and Perceived Exertion Levels

Measuring your heart rate is the more precise way to determine if you are in the moderate-intensity or vigorous-intensity exercise zones.?? But you may not always want to wear a heart rate monitor chest strap, which is the most accurate way to measure it. Use a heart rate monitor and note how you feel at different target heart rates. Then you can draw a correlation with the RPE scale and leave the monitor behind. Occasional workouts with the heart rate monitor will help keep you on track.

The grip heart rate sensors on cardio machines and heart rate sensors on wearables like the Fitbit and the Apple Watch are less accurate than a chest strap heart rate monitor.?? But you can also see how they compare to your RPE and use them as a check. By calibrating your RPE to your heart rate, you won't have to rely on a device to know when to speed up or slow down or increase the incline or resistance.

Now you can get started with the top home cardio exercises.

Was this page helpful?
Article Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Eston R. Use of Ratings of Perceived Exertion in Sports. Int J Sports Physiol Perform. 2012;7(2):175-182.?doi:10.1123/ijspp.7.2.175

  2. Harvard Health Publishing. Feel the beat of heart rate training. Updated December 2017.

  3. Wang R, Blackburn G, Desai M, et al. Accuracy of Wrist-Worn Heart Rate Monitors.?JAMA Cardiol. 2017;2(1):104‐106. doi:10.1001/jamacardio.2016.3340