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What is RPE?

We all know how important exercise is to our overall health. While putting in the time to exercise is important, you also need to monitor how hard you’re working.

One way to track your effort is with the RPE or Rate of Perceived Exertion scale. This method of measuring activity intensity level is also referred to as the Borg Rating of Perceived Exertion scale.

Certified personal trainer, Jacquelyn Baston, LMT, CSCS, NSCA-CPT says the RPE is a subjective measure of how hard a person feels like they’re working during physical activity. “This observation is based on elevated heart rate, increased breathing, and muscle fatigue,” she explains.

These observations correspond to a scale where the higher the number reported, the more intense the exercise, says Baston. This is a very simple, yet fairly accurate way to monitor and guide exercise intensity.

It’s important to remember that there’s a slight difference between the Borg scale and the RPE scale. To get a better understanding of the difference between the two, Baston says to think of it this way:

  • The original Borg scale has a range from 6 to 20 (with 6 being no exertion at all, and 20 being maximum effort). This scale correlates with a person’s heart rate or how hard they feel they’re working.
  • The modified RPE scale has a range from 0 to 10 (with 0 being no exertion and 10 being maximum effort). This scale corresponds more with a feeling of breathlessness.

Certified strength and conditioning specialist, Travis Barrett, MS, CSCS, prefers the RPE scale since it acts more like a sliding scale over time.

“The RPE scale was originally developed by the scientist Gunnar Borg who rated the scale on 6 to 20 (Borg scale), which was basically built around a heart rate range,” he says.

“Whatever number you pick on the 6 to 20 scale, you should add a zero to that and it should equate to your current working heart rate,” he adds. For example, if you’re running up a hill for 30 seconds and it feels like an 11 on the Borg scale, your heart rate should be 110 bpm.

Barrett says the modified RPE scale allows for daily changes in your training. You can push harder than usual on days where you feel great, and back off on days where you feel sluggish.

If you want to measure the intensity of your workouts, get familiar with the numbers. In simple terms, the numbers correspond to the intensity of exercise.

This is helpful for monitoring how hard people are working, especially if a heart rate monitor is not available. And it can be used for anyone, from beginning to advanced fitness levels.

In order to understand how the numbers correspond with specific activities, Barrett gives the following example:

  • 1 on the RPE means you’re lying on the couch
  • 10 on the RPE means you’re pushing a car up a steep hill

The optimal level of intensity for exercise depends on the individual. Baston says that, generally speaking, the recommended exercise guidelines (30 to 45 minutes at a moderately-intense rate, five days per week) correlate to 12 to 14 on the Borg RPE scale.

“The same benefits can be achieved in 20 minutes at a vigorously intense rate, three days per week,” she explains. This equates to a 15 to 17 on the Borg scale.

If you’re comparing the original Borg scale to the modified RPE scale, the moderate-intensity (12 to14) loosely translates to a 4 or 5 on the RPE scale, while vigorous activity (15 to 17) can land on the RPE scale with a range of 6 to 8.

Baston says the RPE scale is also useful when working with heart patients, where their heart may be purposely lowered with medication such as a beta-blocker. Using the scale helps to prevent them from overexerting themselves.

To get a better idea of how these numbers correspond to specific exercises, Dr. Alex Tauberg, DC, CSCS, CCSP says to think of it this way: If you’re training for aerobic endurance, you might be at about a 5 or 6 on the RPE scale for 60 to 90 minutes.

But if you’re training for your one-rep max while lifting weights (the heaviest weight you can lift for one rep), you’ll likely approach a 9 or 10 level for a few minutes at most. Most people with a goal of general fitness, will strength train in the 4 to 7 range.

When looking at the Borg scale, Baston says if you’re walking briskly, you might fall in the 9 to 11 range. Whereas jogging might be closer to 15 to 17, and running and sprinting closer to 17 to 20.

This chart gives you an idea of how these scales and activities compare.

ExertionRPE scaleBorg scaleActivity examples
none06laying on the couch
just noticeable0.57 to 8bending over to put on your shoes
very light19 to 10easy chores, such as doing laundry
light2 to 311 to 12leisurely walking that does not increase your heart rate
moderate/ somewhat hard4 to 513 to 14brisk walking or moderate activity that speeds up your heart rate without making you out of breath
hard6 to 715 to 16vigorous activity, such as jogging, biking, or swimming (increases your heart rate and makes you breathe harder and faster)
very hard8 to 917 to 18the highest level of activity that you can continuing doing without stopping, such as running
maximum effort1019 to 20a short burst of activity, such as a sprint, that you cannot keep doing for long

If you’re using the Borg scale, and want it to correspond with your heart rate, try wearing a heart rate monitor. You can also take your heart rate manually by following these steps:

  • Find your pulse on the inside of your wrist, on the thumb side.
  • Use the tips of your first two fingers (not your thumb) and press lightly over the artery.
  • Count your pulse for 30 seconds and multiply by two to find your beats per minute.

If you’re using the scale without measuring your heart rate, you’ll need to periodically stop and assess how you’re feeling. Then compare to both scales.

Buy a heart rate monitor online here.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends adults get at least 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity, or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity. They also advise engaging in muscle-strengthening activities two or more days a week.

Remember, this is the minimum recommendation. You can always go above these numbers. If you’re looking for additional health benefits, the CDC says you can increase your aerobic exercise to 300 minutes of moderate-intensity activity a week, or 150 minutes of vigorous exercise a week.

Exercise is a key component to your overall health and wellness. It’s good practice to monitor the intensity of your workouts. That way you’ll exercise within a range that’s comfortable, but still requires you to exert yourself.

While monitoring your own heart rate and RPE helps keep you in the safe zone while exercising, you should always talk with your doctor before starting a new exercise routine.