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Measuring physical activity

Experts recommend at least 150 minutes of moderate- to vigorous-intensity physical activity per week. Learn how to measure physical activity using different methods, including heart rate and METs.

Measuring heart rate with phone

Moderate and vigorous physical activity

Canadian physical activity guidelines recommend that for substantial health benefits, adults should do at least 150 minutes of moderate- to vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity per week.

Moderate intensity activities include light swimming, walking for pleasure, cycling to work or school, and dancing.  Vigorous-intensity activities include fast cycling, high-impact aerobics, running and many team sports.

Use the online compedium of physical activities to determine the intensity of an activity.  A list of moderate- and vigorous-intensity activities can be found in the general physical activities defined by level of intensity.

There are several ways to determine the intensity of an activity:

Method of measuring Moderate intensity Vigourous intensity
Perceived exertion
This is how hard you feel your body is working. It is a subjective measure.
Ask yourself how hard you believe your body is working on a scale from 1 to 10, with 1 indicating very little effort and 10 indicating that your body is working very, very hard.
5-6-7 8-9-10
Talk test You can talk, but not sing, during the activity You can't say more than a few words before pausing for a breath during the activity
Metabolic equivalent (MET)
MET is a number that indicates the relative rate at which you burn calories during an activity.  Sitting quietly has an MET of 1.
3-5.9 METs 6.0+ METs
Percent of maximum heart rate (MHR)
Measure your heart rate during an activity and divide by your maximum heart rate, which is 220 minus your age.  Then multiply by 100. Learn how to take your heart rate and more below here.
50-70% 70-85%

Measuring your heart rate

Measure your heart rate (pulse): You can measure your heart rate at the wrist or on your neck. WebMD has instructions on how to do this or watch this short video.

Count the number of beats in 15 seconds and multiply by 4 to get the number of beats per minute.

Calculate your maximum heart rate (MHR): How much your heart can handle during exercise is determined by many different factors, including genetics, your fitness level, etc. But you can get a rough estimate of your maximum heart rate with this formula: MHR=220 minus your age. 

Someone who is 20 years old has a maximum heart rate of 200 (220 minus 20).
You can use the MHR number to calculate percentage of maximum heart rate and target heart rate range.

Calculate percentage of maximum heart rate: Measure your heart rate during an activity. Divide your heart rate during the activity by your maximum heart rate.  Then multiply by 100.

For example, Sarah is 20 years old and she measures her heart rate during an activity to be 164 beats per minute.  Her percentage of maximum heart rate is 82% (164/200 = .82 x 100= 82%)

Examples: Calculate target heart rate range for moderate and vigorous intensity activities 

For moderate intensity:
Fatima is 20 years old and wants to exercise at moderate intensity (50-70% of her maximum heart rate).

Lower limit: (220-20) x .5 = 100
Upper limit: (220-20) x .7 = 140
To exercise at a moderate intensity, Fatima can aim for a heart rate of 100-140 beats/minute.

For vigorous intensity:
Manuel is 25 years old and wants to exercise at vigorous intensity (70%-85% of his maximum heart rate)

Lower limit: (220-25) x .7 = 137
Upper limit: (220-25) x .85 = 166
To exercise at a vigorous intensity, Manual can aim for a heart rate of 137-166 beats/minute.

More about METs

The intensity of an activity can be identified by metabolic equivalents (METS). One (1) MET is the rate at which you burn energy when sitting quietly. One MET is roughly equivalent to one kcal/kg/hour.

  • Brushing your teeth or loading the washing machine uses twice as much energy as sitting quietly, so this activity rates two METs.
  • Playing Frisbee uses three times as much energy as sitting quietly, so this activity rates three METs.
  • An exciting round of Ultimate Frisbee uses eight times as much energy as sitting quietly, so this activity rates eight METs.
  • Running up the stairs uses 15 times as much effort as sitting quietly, so this activity rates 15 METs.

Moderate-intensity activities fall in the range of 3-5.9 METs.

Vigorous-intensity activities are 6.0 METs or greater.

METs are a GUIDE, not an exact math formula! How much energy you actually expend with a specific activity is influenced by your fitness level and other factors, like your body composition, and even how hot it is when you’re doing the activity.

Use the online Compedium of Physical Activities to determine the intensity of an activity by METs. A list of moderate- and vigorous-intensity activities can be found in the "General Physical Activities Defined by Level of Intensity".





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