What Is Moderate Intensity in Cardio Exercise?

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You don't have to kill yourself to burn calories. (Image: bernardbodo/iStock/GettyImages)

When you don't feel like going all out but don't want to phone in your workout, either, there's always moderate-intensity cardio. So what qualifies? Any physical activity that keeps your heart rate at 50 to 70 percent of your maximum heart rate (which varies by age) for the duration of the workout.

Since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that adults get 150 minutes of exercise a week (or 30 minutes a day most days) and that children and teens get 60 minutes each day, it's daunting to think that all has to be lifting weights or running a 5k.

But don't worry! Moderate-intensity cardio is the fun stuff, the exercise and general daily movement that may make you break a sweat and lose your breath a bit, but not the vigorous stuff that leaves you drenched in sweat with your heart pounding in your ears. Moderate-intensity cardio is doable!

Calculate Your Moderate-Intensity Heart Rate

Let's start with your baseline — your max heart rate. It’s actually pretty easy to determine where your target heart rate should be to achieve moderate-intensity cardio. The CDC breaks it down in this easy equation, based on your maximum age-related heart rate:

  • Subtract your age from 220

  • Example: A 50-year-old would be: 220-50 = 170 beats per minute (bpm)

  • So for the 50-percent level: 170 x .5 = 85 bpm

  • And at the 70-percent level: 170 x .7 = 119bpm

For a 50-year-old person, the target heart rate for moderate-intensity cardio is between 85 bpm and 119 bpm.

Measure Your Heart Rate

Now that you know what it should be, figure out what it actually is while you're working out. If you’re really committed to achieving this heart-healthy, fat-burning level of cardio exercise, you’ll need to monitor your heart rate. There are a few simple ways to do this.

Easiest: The Talk Test

If you're able to talk, but not sing, during your workout, then you’ve likely hit the target heart rate for moderate-intensity cardio. On the other hand, if you can chatter away with ease, you’re not working hard enough. And if you can barely mutter a few words, you’re at the vigorous-intensity stage (of which you need about 75 minutes a week).

Easier: Check Your Pulse

Stop moving and place both your index and middle fingers on your neck or wrist where you can feel your pulse. Count the beats for 15 seconds (you’ll need a clock or stopwatch) then multiply that number by 4.

  • 25 beats during 15 seconds x 4 = 100 bpm

Easy: Wear a Monitor

You have a few options if you want to get the gear and invest a little (or a lot) of cash.

  • Free apps like Cardiio use your smartphone’s camera to record your pulse and return a heart rate.

  • Machines at the gym are usually equipped with monitoring devices, either in the hand rails, through a strap or with a finger cuff. But you should be aware that these are usually the least accurate.

  • Smart devices like Apple Watch and FitBit have built-in capability to monitor your heart rate.

  • A more traditional chest strap can be worn during your workouts for continuous, and some would argue the best quality, heart monitoring. Newer models may connect and push data to your smartphone or device.

Moderate-Intensity Cardio Exercise Examples

Remember, this is moderate cardio. You’re going to increase your heart rate for 30 minutes, or in bursts of 10 to 15 minutes, but you’re not going to wreck yourself. Moderate-cardio exercises are typically very accessible and achievable for anyone who gets up and moves around during the day.

  • Walking briskly
  • Jogging lightly
  • Elliptical machine
  • Water aerobics
  • Swimming
  • Bicycle ride
  • Tennis (doubles)
  • Ballroom dancing
  • Gardening
  • Cleaning windows, mopping, vacuuming
  • Softball or baseball
  • Volleyball
  • Some intense yoga positions, like sun salutations and triangle pose
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