Chapter 3 – Cardiorespiratory Fitness

Measuring Intensity

Intensity may be the most important aspect of the FITT principle. Engaging in a “cardio” program that does not stress the CR system to the recommended levels will be ineffective. Engaging in a program that overstresses the system can lead to injury and pose unnecessary risks. So how do you know if you are in the right range?

Heart rate is one of the best ways to measure effort level. Walking and jogging increase a person’s heart rate. Based on the function of the heart, this is no surprise. The heart rate directly correlates with the amount of oxygen being taken in by the lungs. As activity increases in intensity, oxygen demands increase and so does heart rate.

Because of this relationship, heart rate can be used in the design of an effective walking and jogging program by creating target heart rate zones. Heart rate zones represent an intensity range—a low end heart rate and a high end rate—within which a person’s heart rate would fall during a walking or jogging session.

The first step in determining your target heart rate (THR), is to determine your maximum heart rate (MHR), both measured in beats per minute (bpm). Generally, MHR is estimated to be your age subtracted from 220 beats per minute. In other words, your heart rate should theoretically stop increasing once it reaches the calculated maximum. While helpful, it is not uncommon to see variances in the laboratory tested maximum heart rate versus the calculated method.

The next step in calculating THR is to calculate a specific percentage of your MHR. This is done using two different methods. Keep in mind, finding the THR is the objective in both methods, even though slightly different numbers are used.

The first method, called Max Heart Rate Method, is more commonly used.

Max Heart Rate Method

  1. Calculate MHR;
    MHR = 220 – age.
  2. Calculate high and low THR by plugging in a percentage range. In this example, 60 and 80% are being used.
    MHR x .60 = THRLow
    MHR x .80 =THRHigh
  3. The resulting low and high THR numbers represent the range, or target intensity.

The target intensity signifies an optimal training zone for that particular walking or jogging session. By keeping the heart rate within that range, you will drive adaptation specific to that intensity. By using real, but random numbers, and plugging them into the above equation this becomes apparent.

Female, aged 20:

  1. MHR = 220 -20
    MHR = 200 bpm;
  2. THRlow = 200 x .60
    THRlow = 120 bpm
    THRhigh =200 x .80
    THRhigh = 160 bpm
  3. THR = 120 – 160 bpm

To achieve her self-established goals, the female in the example above will need to stay within the range of 120 and 160 bpm. If her efforts are intense enough that she begins to exceed 160 bpm during her session, or easy enough that her heart rate falls below 120 bpm, she would need to change her intensity mid-session to get the optimal results.

The Karvonen Formula or Heart Rate Reserve Method

  1. Calculate MHR; MHR = 220 – age.
  2. Determine your resting heart rate (RHR).
  3. Find the heart rate reserve (HRR); HRR = MHR – RHR
  4. Calculate high and low THR by plugging in a percentage range and then adding in the RHR. In this example, 60 and 80% are being used.
    THRlow = HRR x .60 + RHR
    THRhigh = HRR x .80 + RHR
  5. The resulting low and high THR numbers represent the range, or target intensity.

Clearly, the Karvonen formula requires a few more steps, specifically, the incorporation of the resting heart rate. Using the same female in the example above, along with a randomly selected RHR, the THR looks like this:

  1. MHR = 220 – 20
    MHR = 200
  2. RHR = 72 bpm (randomly selected)
  3. HRR = MHR – RHR
    HRR = 200 – 72
    HRR = 128
  4. THRlow = HRR x .60 + RHR
    THRlow = 128 x .60 + 72
    THRlow = 149 bpm
    THRhigh = HRR x .80 + RHR
    THRhigh = 128 x .80 + 72
    THRhigh = 174 bpm
  5. THR = 149 – 174 bpm

A comparison of the two methods, reveals that the low and high end of the Karvonen formula is much higher than the Max Heart Rate method, even though the exact same percentages have been used. If the female in this example used the Karvonen Formula, she would find herself at a much higher intensity, especially at the low end of the range (120 vs. 149 bpm). How can this be? Aren’t these formulas supposed to have the same objective?

While it is true that both equations are used to estimate a target heart rate range, only the Karvonen Formula takes into account the RHR, the lowest possible heart rate that can be measured for that individual. The Max Heart Rate method assumes the lowest heart rate possible is “0,” a number to be avoided if at all possible! Because of the difference between 0 and the maximum heart rate, the calculated percentages result in a much lower number. In terms of accuracy, the Karvonen method is superior. It simply is a better representation of true target ranges.

Other Ways to Determine Intensity

Since not everyone owns a heart rate monitor, or wishes to pause during training to take pulse, other methods of determining exercise intensity have been developed. One particular method, called the rating of perceived exertion (RPE), uses subjective measurement to determine intensity. The method is as simple as asking the question, Overall, how hard do I feel I am working? The answer is given based on a scale of 6 to 20 with 6 being almost no effort and 20 being maximum effort. Studies have indicated that when subjects are asked to exercise at a moderate or heavy intensity level, subjects can accurately do so, even without seeing their heart rate. As a result, using the RPE scale can be an effective way of managing intensity.

  • The original RPE scale or Borg Scale, designed by Dr. Gunnar Borg, was developed to mimic generalized heart rate patterns. The starting and ending point of the scale are less intuitive than a typical scale of 1-10. By design, the 6 represents a resting heart rate of 60 bpm and the 20 an exercise heart rate of 200 bpm, a beat count someone might experience at maximum effort. Over time, a modified Borg Scale was developed using a simple 1–10 scale, with 1 being resting effort and 10 being maximum effort. Even though the modified scale is more intuitive, the traditional scale is still used more frequently. Follow this link to see both the original and modified scales.
  • Walking and jogging not only benefit physical health, but many enjoy the social benefits realized by exercising with friends. When walking or jogging with friends, intensity can easily be measured by monitoring your ability to carry on a conversation. With the Talk Test, if you are only able to say short phrases or give one word responses when attempting to converse during an exercise session, this would suggest you are working at a high enough intensity that your breathing rate makes conversation difficult. Certainly, if you can speak in full sentences without getting winded, the intensity would be very light. Just like RPE, the Talk Test is yet another way to subjectively measure intensity, which can then be correlated with heart rates.


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Health and Fitness for Life Copyright © 2019 by Dawn Markell and Diane Peterson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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