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What is moderate-intensity exercise?

How much exercise do we need to do to reap the rewards?

A mum and her daughter dancing in the living room
A mum and her daughter dancing in the living room

We all know it’s important to stay active for our health. But just how much exercise do we actually need to do to reap the rewards? Do we have to sweat it out for hours at the gym, or run 10km every day to see results?

Luckily, the answer to that second question is no – for adults, hitting a regular target of 30 minutes of moderate exercise every day is enough to maintain your wellbeing and reduce your risk of health-related problems. That’s manageable for most of us, right?

With benefits such as reducing your risk of a heart attack, type 2 diabetes and some cancers, lowering cholesterol levels, improving recovery time after being in hospital, weight management as well as improved mental health and overall quality of life, it’s no wonder regular, moderate-intensity exercise is heralded as a health game-changer. Of course, exercising at high intensity has plenty of benefits, too, but for those who are not fans of getting sweaty, moderate exercise is ideal. So what is moderate exercise, exactly? And can anyone do it?

What is moderate-intensity exercise?

It’s difficult to give one specific definition for moderate exercise, as what moderate-intensity activity looks like depends on the individual, explains Heath Jones, over-50s fitness expert and director at Active & Ageless. Heath often uses what’s known as a rate of perceived exertion (RPE) scale to determine a client’s intensity level during a workout.

“An RPE scale is a determination from a client as to how hard they are working – for example, if a client says they are working at a 5/10 in terms of difficulty, that is classified as ‘somewhat difficult’ and where we like them to be.”

You can also use the “talk test” to determine what moderate exercise looks like for you. If you can comfortably talk while exercising, but wouldn’t be able to sing, it’s a fair sign you’re working hard enough to tick the box of moderate-intensity activity.

Related: Aerobic exercises to improve your health

A man wearing a hat mowing his lawn with the sun shining between the trees behind him

How does it differ from low- and high-intensity exercise?

To help you understand both ends of the spectrum, using the talk test, during low-intensity exercise, you should be able to talk and sing without puffing.
And you’ll know you’re working at a high intensity when you can’t speak more than a few words without puffing or gasping.

What does it mean in terms of heart rate?

Using your heart rate is another way to determine what moderate exercise means for your body, though it’s admittedly a little more involved than the talk test.

Moderate-intensity activity means training no harder than 50 to 70% of an individual’s maximum heart rate. A rough way of calculating your maximum heart rate is 220 minus a person’s age. So, for example, if Margaret is 77, her maximum heart rate would be 220 minus 77, which equals 143 beats per minute.

If we work out 50-70% of that, Margaret would be looking at a target heart rate of 71-100 beats per minute for moderate-intensity exercise. Remember, this is just a guide and should be used with caution.

Related: What is the optimal heart rate target when exercising?

Target heart rate

AgeTarget range heart beats per minute (50-70% of max heart rate)
20100 - 140
2598 - 137
3095 - 133
3593 - 130
4090 - 126
4588 - 123
5085 - 119
5583 - 116
6080 - 112
6578 - 109

What are some moderate exercise examples?

As you’ve probably worked out by now, moderate exercise is less about what you’re doing and more about how much energy you’re exerting – so when it comes to moderate-intensity activity examples, the sky’s the limit!

The main thing to focus on is that you’re hitting that target of a minimum of 30 minutes of moderate-intensity activity on most (preferably all) days; or, to put it in different terms, between 2.5 and 5 hours of moderate exercise each week.

Examples of moderate exercise include:

  • Taking a brisk walk

  • Playing a game of golf with your buddies

  • Mowing the lawn

  • Swimming laps

  • Playing a game of tennis

  • Riding your bike.

It’s also important to include muscle-strengthening movements in your weekly exercise routine. At least two days a week, move in a way that builds strength. This could be specific moves such as push-ups, pull-ups, squats or lunges, or a weights session at the gym; or it could simply be household tasks that involve lifting, carrying or digging (think: bringing in groceries from the car or gardening).

Related: Strength training vs cardio: What’s better for weight loss?

Keep in mind, if you can still sing a song while doing your task, this doesn’t count as moderate exercise. And, of course, if you find 30 minutes a day a struggle, remember that any activity is better than none. Just get moving!

Whether you’re new to exercise or training for a half marathon, check out The Check Up’s dedicated fitness section for more expert tips to help you achieve your goals.

Please note: The tips throughout this article serve as broad information and should not replace any advice you have been given by your medical practitioner.

About Heath Jones

Heath Jones is a personal trainer and registered nurse with more than 20 years of experience in the health and fitness industry. As the founder of Active & Ageless – a health club specifically for over 50s in Hurstville, Sydney – Heath is passionate about helping Australians stay physically fit into their later years and lead a better quality of life. He is at his happiest when surrounded by the ocean, be it surfing, skin diving or simply staring into the blue abyss of the sea.