How to Use the Perceived Exertion Scale During Your Workout

Determine exercise intensity with the rating of perceived exertion scale

Perceived Exertion Scale
Use the Scale of Perceived Exertion. Credit: Chris Tobin / Getty Images

The ‘talk test’, the target heart rate range, and the Borg Rating of Perceived Exertion (RPE) are all methods for determining how hard you are exercising. 

Exercise intensity is important to gauge because it can tell you whether you are working too hard or not working hard enough. One common way to do this is using a Rating of Perceived Exertion (RPE).

What Is Perceived Exertion?

Simply put, perceived exertion is how hard you feel your body is working is perceived exertion.

Increased heart rate, respiration or breathing rate, sweating, and muscle fatigue are all physical sensations you may experience during physical activity. How these things affect your workout is a subjective measure, but what the amount of exertion you feel that you are doing has been found to be a fairly good estimate of your actual heart rate during activity.

The Rating of Perceived Exertion (RPE) Scale

When you exercise, you should rate your perception of your exertion. This feeling should reflect how heavy and strenuous the exercise feels to you, combining all sensations and feelings of physical stress, effort, and fatigue. Do not concern yourself with any one factor such as leg pain or shortness of breath, but try to focus on your total feeling of exertion.

To do this, look at the rating scale below while you are engaging in an activity; it ranges from 6 to 20, where 6 means "no exertion at all" and 20 means "maximal exertion." By choosing the number from below that best describes your level of exertion, you will have an idea of the intensity level of your activity.


Try to appraise your feeling of exertion as honestly as possible, without thinking about what the actual physical load is. Your own feeling of effort and exertion is important, not how it compares to other people's. Look at the scales and the expressions and then give a number.

6No exertion at all
7Extremely light
9Very light - (easy walking slowly at a comfortable pace)
13Somewhat hard (It is quite an effort; you feel tired but can continue)
15Hard (heavy)
17Very hard (very strenuous, and you are very fatigued)
19Extremely hard (You can not continue for long at this pace)
20Maximal exertion

How to Use the Perceived Exertion Scale

During activity, use the Borg Scale (RPE scale) to assign numbers to how you feel. Self-monitoring how hard your body is working can help you adjust the intensity of the activity by speeding up or slowing down your movements.

By monitoring how your body feels, it will become easier to know when to adjust your intensity. For example, a walker who wants to engage in moderate-intensity activity would aim for a Borg Scale level of "somewhat hard" (12-14). If he describes his muscle fatigue and breathing as "very light" (9 on the Borg Scale) he would want to increase his intensity, by either walking faster, moving his arms more, seeking out inclines, or adding jogging intervals. On the other hand, if he felt his exertion was "extremely hard" (19 on the Borg Scale) he would need to slow down his movements to achieve the moderate-intensity range.

How RPE Reflects Heart Rate

A person's exertion rating may provide a fairly good estimate of the actual heart rate during activity. By multiplying your perceived exertion rating times 10, it may give you a good estimate of what your actual heart rate is during physical activity.

For example, if your RPE is 12, then 12 x 10 = 120; so the heart rate should be approximately 120 beats per minute.

Note that this calculation is only an approximation of heart rate and the actual heart rate can vary quite a bit depending on age and physical condition. The Borg Rating of Perceived Exertion is also the preferred method to assess intensity among those individuals who take medications that affect heart rate or pulse.


Measuring Physical Activity. Department of Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Obesity. Centers for Disease Control. Published August 11, 2015. Accessed March 20, 2016.

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