When I first moved to Boston, I joined a slow pitch softball team called Wild. Many of us were in our late twenties and early thirties, and we did what we could to live up to the name.
I was at third base in one of my first games and made a diving stop on a sharply hit ground ball. I almost surprised myself with my reflexes and stood up only to hear my teammates yelling at me.
My face betrayed my indignation before the shortstop wandered over and explained that was the inside joke for when you couldn’t possibly have tried any harder.
Irony. Or something.
As I’ve moved into the realms of personal training and coaching, we don’t often talk about effort. The goal for so many folks is to just get started and build consistency that’s it’s easy to forget about what happens when you do start exercising or going to the gym on a regular basis.
But once you do build that routine, the next question becomes:
HOW HARD ARE YOU WORKING?
The Borg Scale (No, not like Victory Borge) is also known as the Rate of Perceived Exertion Scale and is a way of measuring physical activity intensity level. On the Borg scale, the measurement is from 6-20. Six is no exertion at all, nine is very light, 15 is hard and 20 is your maximum effort.
We recently began a challenge at Spurling to hit 100 workouts between July 1st and the end of the year. Not all of those workouts will come in the gym, and many folks have asked what constitutes a workout outside of the gym. My question is, how hard do you feel you are you working during the activity?
Next time you walk the dog or walk your friend pay attention to your effort level. According to the CDC “a high correlation exists between a person’s perceived exertion rating times 10 and the actual heart rate during physical activity; so a person’s exertion rating may provide a fairly good estimate of the actual heart rate during activity (Borg, 1998).
If your RPE is 13, which on the Borg scale is working somewhat hard, and you multiply that number by 10, then your heart rate is like 130 beats per minute. (That's why Borg skipped the first five numbers). Researchers have found that measuring your own effort is a quick and effective way to judge intensity. (Click if you want to read more about the Borg Scale).
For a person with a higher fitness level, walking the dog may feel like a 9, which on the Borg scale is the equivalent of very light and her heart rate would be around 90 beats per minute. For someone who is sedentary and deconditioned, walking the dog for 20 minutes may be a 15 on the Borg scale (hard) and her heart rate is around 150 beats per minute. What matters most is measuring your own feeling of effort and exertion, and not how it compares to other people’s.
Don’t underestimate that last piece. Evaluate your own feeling of exertion - not how your friend feels. But also be honest - if you are out walking, measure your effort. (Heart rate monitors can be useful for this, but again, if you use the Borg scale and multiply by 10, you'll get a good estimate.)
If you want to see results - which for many is fat loss - the exercise needs to be, according to the CDC, 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity - which means at a minimum, brisk walks. If you are already doing that - the next challenge is to move towards 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity.
The bottom line is that while it is important to get up and move and start doing something, it's equally important to begin paying attention to your effort.
So, in the words of my Wild teammates, sometimes you may have to try harder.
But make sure to have fun while you do it.