Understanding the RPE scale is like having your own intensity meter providing constant feedback on your exercise routine. The Borg Rating of Perceived Exertion scale gives you an idea of how hard you are training and whether you need to pick up the pace or slow it down a bit.
Having a good approximation of how fast your heart is beating during exercise is a way to ensure you are exercising to reach your goals. If you're not sure where to start, try aiming to fulfill the physical activity guidelines from the Department of Health and Human Services. They recommend doing at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity cardio per week, or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity exercise.
The RPE Scale Defined
The Borg Rating of Perceived Exertion — RPE — is a rating scale ranging from six to 20 that gives an indication of your workout intensity level. A rating of six means you are not exerting yourself at all, while a rating of 20 means you are at maximal exertion. This perceived exertion is based on how you feel your body feels during exercise. The subjective test relies on bodily sensations during exercise, such as muscular fatigue, increased breathing rate and heart rate, and increased sweating.
Choose Your Intensity
Using the RPE scale on a regular basis helps you to understand the scale, to recognize your body's signs of exertion, and to modify your normal workout intensity.
According to a January 2013 article published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology, a perceived exertion level of 11 to 13 is generally considered "low" exercise intensity. Rating yourself between 13 and 15 during exercise suggests that you are exercising at a moderate intensity — somewhat hard. The Harvard School of Public Health offers a similar assessment, rating an RPE level of 13 to 14 as "somewhat hard," with 15 signaling the start of "hard."
Once you feel that you are exercising "somewhat hard," you can increase or decrease your efforts depending on how you feel and the intensity you require. During your workout, if the perceived exertion of your workout is extremely hard and a 19 on the RPE scale, consider slowing down to a moderate-intensity range.
RPE and Heart Rate
The RPE scale serves as an indicator of your heart rate. Multiplying your perceived exertion rate by 10 highly correlates to your actual heart rate during exercise. If your RPE is 13, multiply 13 by 10 to get 130, therefore your heart rate is approximately 130 beats per minute. While RPE is a useful tool for estimating heart rate, it is only an approximation because physical conditioning and age vary between exercise enthusiasts.
Make It Yours
Use the RPE scale to adjust your intensity level and improve your own workouts. Instead of focusing on a single part of your body, like your burning quads or your tired calves or arms, the RPE scale requires you to focus on all aspects and sensations of the exercise you're doing.
That's why the RPE is so personal — so don't base your exertion level on what another person does or her intensity level. Jogging at 5 mph may be rather difficult for you, resulting in an RPE of 16 or 17 while the person on the next treadmill runs easily — estimating an RPE of 10 or 11 — at 8 mph. And a 225-pound bench press for you may result in the same RPE as 135 pounds for someone else.
As your body adapts to the exercise challenges it's faced with, you might also find that an exercise that once provoked an RPE of 15 or 16 is now down to an 11 or 12 — or if you stop working out for a while, your rating for a given activity might climb instead of sinking. Tracking this variation is an excellent way of judging the progress you're making along your fitness journey.
- Health.gov: "Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans"
- Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services: "Perceived Exertion"
- European Journal of Applied Physiology: "Associations Between Borg's Rating of Perceived Exertion and Physiological Measures of Exercise Intensity"
- Harvard School of Public Health: "The Borg Scale of Perceived Exertion"