Determining the Intensity of Your Walk
Depending on the style of walking you do, the intensity of your workout can vary widely.
If you're just casually strolling around the neighborhood to improve your overall health, then the total accrual of miles, minutes, and calories is more important than high intensity. But even so, it still makes sense to pay attention to how hard you're working so that you don't overdo it.
If you're a fitness walker, then intensity is a key factor because you are trying to work up a sweat, give your heart and lungs a good workout, and burn some calories. And of course, if you're a high-energy or race walker, you must carefully monitor your intensity level to make sure that you get into the proper training range but don't go overboard and injure yourself.
Monitoring your heart rate
How fast your heart beats correlates directly with how hard you're working. Your target heart rate zone is the range of heart rates that your heart should be beating for a given amount of exercise.
If you are taking an easy stroll through the mall or around the block, strive to be at 50 to 60 percent of your maximum heart rate. If, however, you are doing a fitness walk, you want your target heart rate to be at 60 to 75 percent of your maximum heart rate. During a high-energy walk, you want your target heart rate to be at 75 to 95 percent of your maximum heart rate.
Take your heart rate after you've been working out for at least 5 minutes. If you are exercising 30 minutes or more, take your heart rate every 15 to 20 minutes. Make sure that you also take your heart rate at your peak exercise intensity, meaning at the highest point of your workout. This rate generally occurs in the middle of your workout, when you are walking at the fastest speed of the workout.
You may also find it useful to take your recovery heart rate, which is your heart rate taken for 1 minute immediately after you stop exercising. The faster your heart rate slows down, the better condition you're in.
Rating your perceived exertion
Some enterprising exercise physiologist in the 1960s came up with a way to quantify how you feel when you're working out. He created a chart called the RPE scale that helps you rate exercise intensity on a scale of 1 to 10.
A 1 represents a level of activity that is really easy. You can do it all day without feeling winded. A 1 requires no more effort than sitting in bed and watching TV. On the other end of the scale, a 10 represents your maximum level of activity. A casual walker should strive for a level of activity that falls somewhere in the middle of the scale - an RPE of 4 to 6 is ideal. Fitness walkers should aim for an RPE between 6 and 8, and high-energy walkers, or race walkers, want to shoot for the high end of the scale, between 8 and 10.
This is just a quick, easy way to quantify how hard you think you're working out. You take into account everything from the way your muscles feel to how hard you're breathing and assign it a number that correlates with the level of difficulty you're working at.
The talk test
The talk test is the simplest way to gauge exercise intensity. By speaking aloud — even if you don't have anyone to talk to — you can tell how hard you're working.
If you can sing the latest Madonna tune at the top of your lungs as you walk along, you obviously aren't working hard enough to gain any health benefits. Fitness walkers should be able to offer snatches of breathless conversation, and race walkers shouldn't really be able to speak during the peak of their workouts, but they should be able to throw out a breathless word or two here or there. Regardless of the type of walk you engage in, if you can't utter a single sound other than gasping for air, you're working too hard and need to slow down.