By Wyatt Myers If you go to the gym three times a week, but you’re not really breaking a sweat, you could be selling yourself short when it comes to both weight loss and fitness. Research shows that exercise intensity, and not necessarily length, might be the key to better fitness and overall health. For example, a study at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C. recently found that aerobic exercise to the point where it’s difficult to hold a conversation is the key to maximizing calorie burn during — and after — a workout. Similarly, a new study published in Journal of Applied Physiology found that a shorter, harder workout can help patients more effectively manage type II diabetes than a longer, more moderate sweat session.
So if you’re wondering whether you’re working hard enough, measuring intensity doesn’t get much easier than the talk test. Simply put, the talk test is this: If you exercise at an intensity level that still enables you to carry on a conversation, it is a good and safe intensity for you. If you can’t carry on a conversation, then you may want to tone it down a notch until you can. If you find that speaking doesn’t leave you the least bit winded, it might be time to dial up your intensity (though you should check with your doctor before starting an exercise routine).
“This type of measurement is great because it requires no equipment or need to figure out or measure your heart rate,” says Debra Gray, a fitness expert in Omaha, Neb. “It has been shown to be accurate by the American College of Sports Medicine.”
Talk-Test Pros and Cons
Timothy J. Quinn, PhD, a professor of kinesiology at the University of New Hampshire, has conducted extensive research on the talk test in recent years. He has found that it has several pros and cons when it comes to measuring exercise intensity and overall fitness levels.
“The pros are that it’s simple; you can dial up or down the intensity easily. It works in every environment, including heat, cold, and altitude, and almost every population — cardiac patients, pregnant women, diabetics, and people who are overweight — can use it,” Quinn says. “The cons are that it’s not tremendously specific, so fine applications aren’t always clear. It’s hard to determine gradations, and not everyone wants to talk while exercising.”
In Quinn’s most recently published study on the talk test, he discovered that in study participants who weren’t particularly active, it yielded higher heart rates than did other methods of gauging exercise intensity. In more active participants, the talk test did not get heart rates high enough to provide an optimal workout.
Nonetheless, the talk test still managed to keep the most participants well within the safe range of exercise. Plus, Quinn and his team found it to be a safe method for prescribing exercise for the group that was studied. They concluded that the test might be more effective for beginning or noncompetitive exercisers, rather than those who are training toward specific fitness goals.
Tips for Achieving Optimal Exercise Intensity
Although the talk test may not be the most accurate way to measure exercise intensity, experts agree that it certainly holds value as a simple method for the average person to keep his or her exercise routine at a safe level.
If you want to measure your intensity more precisely, there are other strategies to keep you working hard enough:
Use a heart rate monitor. Quinn says a heart-rate monitor is the most accurate option for gauging your exercise intensity level at home. When using this electronic device, you want to hit your target heart rate, which is 50 to 85 percent of your age-based maximum heart rate while resting. To avoid risks like heart attacks or other cardiovascular events, stay within this healthy range — and don’t exceed it.
Listen to your body. As you start to exercise more, Gray says, you will start to get a feel for the results of the “talk test” by simply being more aware of your own exertion level. She suggests you ask yourself how you feel post-working, and note whether you’re perspiring or sweating. She adds, “When your heart rate and core temperature are elevated, your body will sweat to cool itself.”
Vary the intensity. To keep your workout safe while still adding some intensity, you can try interval training, or ramping effort up for a short time period and then slowing back down. “Try varying the intensity with short bursts of high intensity (30 seconds to 1 minute) and low-intensity recovery mode (1 to 2 minutes),” Gray says.
Do what you like. “Any kind of intense cardio is going to burn fat, whether it’s sprinting, running, biking, jumping, or plyometric exercise,” Rich Gaspari, a personal trainer and owner of Gaspari Nutrition, says. “If your heart rate is up, then it is considered cardio and you will burn fat.”
The most important thing,” Gaspari adds, “is staying dedicated, being consistent, staying motivated, and lastly, having fun!”
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