Understanding The Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) Scale

rate of perceived exertion scale

The Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) scale, which ranges from 0 to 10, is a tool used to measure the effort exerted during physical activity. It provides individuals with a subjective test of how hard their body is working, allowing them to tailor their workouts according to their perceived exertion levels. This scale is invaluable for managing exercise intensity, improving cardiovascular fitness, and evaluating heart and lung health.

By incorporating methods such as the talk test, target heart rate range, and Borg Rating of Perceived Exertion1, individuals can better understand their exertion levels and make informed decisions about their fitness routines. Overall, the RPE scale plays a crucial role in optimizing exercise effectiveness and promoting overall well-being.

What Is Perceived Exertion?

Perceived exertion is the subjective measure of how hard you perceive your body to be working during physical activity2. It encompasses the physical sensations experienced during exercise, such as an increased heart rate, accelerated breathing, sweating, and muscle fatigue. These sensations provide valuable insights into your exercise intensity, allowing you to gauge your effort level without the need for specialized equipment.

While perceived exertion may not be as objective as directly measuring physiological parameters like heart rate, it offers a convenient and accessible way to assess exercise intensity in real-time. By tuning into your body’s signals and adjusting your effort level accordingly, you can effectively manage your workout intensity and optimize your training outcomes. This intuitive approach to monitoring exertion levels empowers individuals to tailor their workouts to their individual needs and goals, ultimately enhancing their overall fitness and well-being.

What Is RPE?

The Rating of Perceived Exertion (RPE) scale, established by Swedish researcher Gunnar Borg in 1982, is a tool used to gauge exertion levels during physical activity. Ranging from 6 to 20, with 6 indicating minimal exertion and 20 representing maximum effort, this scale provides individuals with a framework for understanding their workout intensity.

When using the RPE scale, it’s important to consider various sensations rather than focusing solely on one aspect. Factors such as breathing pattern, sweat production, and overall fatigue contribute to perceived exertion. By taking these factors into account, you can accurately assess their exertion level during exercise.

Instead of relying on external measures like speed or comparing oneself to others, the RPE scale encourages individuals to tune into their internal cues. By assigning a number between 6 and 20 based on their perceived exertion, individuals can better understand and regulate their workout intensity.

At the lower end of the scale, a rating of 6 signifies minimal exertion, similar to standing still or sitting. As the scale progresses, higher ratings indicate increased effort levels, with levels 12 to 14 representing moderate-intensity exertion and levels 15 and above indicating vigorous-intensity exertion, such as running.

How many types of RPE scales?

There are two different RPE scales that you can use to measure the intensity of your workout: the Borg RPE scale or a modified CR-10 Borg category ratio scale. Both scales assign a number to what you feel when exercising, helping you gauge your perceived exertion levels accurately and make informed decisions about adjusting your exercise intensity.

The Borg RPE Scale

The Borg RPE scale starts at 6 and goes up to 20, which might seem unusual. However, there’s a clever reason behind this design. It’s intended to provide a rough estimate of your heart rate during exercise. You can calculate this by multiplying your RPE score by 10.

For example, if you’re exercising and your RPE is 15, multiplying it by 10 gives you an estimated heart rate of 150 beats per minute. This insight can help you gauge your exertion level and adjust your workout intensity accordingly.

Originally developed for the average healthy adult, this scale’s accuracy can be influenced by factors such as age and physical condition, which affect your maximum heart rate and corresponding heart rate zones for different exercise intensities. To personalize your training, it’s important to identify which heart rate corresponds to each intensity zone based on your individual characteristics.

RPEExertion FeltActivity Examples
6No exertion at allSeated meditation, light stretching
7Extremely lightGentle yoga, slow tai chi
8Very lightEasy walking, slow dancing
9LightBrisk walking, light jogging, using an elliptical
10Somewhat lightLight weightlifting (think bodyweight or light dumbbells), stationary cycling
11ModerateBrisk walking uphill, swimming, faster cycling
12Somewhat hardRunning at a conversational pace, jump rope, tennis (doubles)
13HardRunning at a challenging pace, faster swimming, intense cycling
14Very hardHill sprints, plyometrics (jumping exercises), HIIT with short rest periods
15Extremely hardHeavy weightlifting (think squats with heavy weight), HIIT with minimal rest
16Maximal exertionSprinting, all-out effort for a short duration
17-19Not recommended for most peopleThese levels represent extreme exertion that can be dangerous for some individuals.
20Maximal exertionThis is reserved for very short bursts of maximum effort, like sprinting all-out.

Modified Borg CR10 RPE scale

Many individuals prefer the Modified RPE scale using the 0–10 numbering system because it helps reduce confusion, allowing you to estimate your heart rate levels more accurately. The main difference between the two scales, aside from the numerical ranges, lies in their measurement criteria. While the Borg RPE scale primarily focuses on exertion to determine heart rate, the modified scale is based on an individual’s breath—from deep breathing to shortened breaths.

For example, an RPE of 1 on the modified scale would indicate that a person could easily sing or carry on a conversation for hours without feeling fatigued, whereas an RPE of 10 would signify that they are unable to talk or breathe deeply due to engaging in a burst of maximum physical activity.

Rating of Perceived Exertion (RPE)LevelActivity Examples
0No exertionSitting quietly, lying down
1Very lightLight stretching, gentle yoga
2-3LightWalking slowly, tai chi, using an elliptical
4-5ModerateBrisk walking, swimming, cycling at a moderate pace
6-7Somewhat hardRunning at a conversational pace, jump rope, tennis (doubles)
8-9High (Vigorous)Running at a challenging pace, intense cycling, HIIT with moderate rest
10Maximum effortSprinting, heavy weightlifting (one-rep max attempts)

Which is Best for you?

RPE scales are useful for measuring exercise intensity. For cardiovascular workouts, like running or cycling, the Borg RPE scale (6–20) is best for monitoring heart rate based on perceived exertion. Alternatively, for strength training and muscle building exercises, such as weightlifting, the modified Borg CR10 RPE scale (0–10) is more suitable for assessing exertion levels based on breath and muscle fatigue.

By choosing the appropriate scale based on your workout goals, you can effectively monitor and adjust exercise intensity for improved performance and fitness outcomes.

How to Use the RPE

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), adults should engage in moderate-intensity aerobic activity for 150 minutes per week. This can include various activities like cycling, swimming, brisk walking, jogging, and even gardening.

If fitting in 30 minutes of exercise every day seems daunting, the good thing is you can spread it out over the week—just 30 minutes a day for 5 days is sufficient. Additionally, the CDC advises incorporating strength-training activities, such as weight lifting or pushups, into your routine at least two days a week.

Once you’ve warmed up to a light exertion level, start your moderate-intensity workout. After a few minutes, assess your rate of perceived exertion (RPE) using the Borg scale. If your RPE is below 12, consider increasing your pace or adding resistance to boost your intensity.

For instance, walkers, runners, or cyclists can pick up their speed, tackle inclines, or incorporate high-intensity intervals. Conversely, if your RPE is around 19, it might be wise to dial back your pace or reduce resistance until you return to the moderate-intensity zone.

Both the Borg and modified RPE scales are great tools for keeping your weekly moderate-intensity activity up-to-date. Additionally, they can help people track their progress and work towards achieving new fitness goals.

Why Is the RPE Good to Use?

There are several reasons why people might choose to use the Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) scale, but its primary purpose is to gauge how hard you’re working during exercise, aiding in the achievement of fitness goals. Additionally, the RPE offers several benefits:

  • Quick Heart Rate Estimation: Without a heart rate monitor, the RPE provides a straightforward method to estimate your heart rate during exercise.
  • Accuracy in Heart Rate Measurement: The RPE serves as a fairly accurate means of measuring heart rate. If your estimated heart rate deviates from the expected range, you can adjust your exertion level accordingly.
  • Relevance for Medication Users: For individuals on certain medications, such as those for blood pressure or heart conditions, the RPE is particularly valuable. Monitoring exertion level relative to heart rate can be crucial for ensuring safe and effective exercise, especially when medication affects heart rate or pulse.
  • Usefulness for Medication Users: The Borg RPE scale is especially useful for individuals taking medications that impact their heart rate or pulse. In such cases, relying solely on heart rate measurement may not accurately reflect exercise intensity, making the RPE a more reliable indicator.

Related: Heart Rate Monitors: How Do They Work?

  1. Borg Rating of Perceived Exertion ↩︎
  2. Measuring Physical Activity Intensity ↩︎

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