New to exercising? Focus on these 3 letters: RPE

Starting out with any kind of exercise routine can be daunting, scary, overwhelming, exciting, thrilling…and potentially exhausting.

Whether you’re stepping outside your door for a walk, stepping on an elliptical machine at the gym, or taking steps to work with a personal trainer, you should keep three letters in mind: RPE.

RPE means the Rating of Perceived Exertion

RPE exercise scale
Image courtesy of Cleveland Clinic

RPE is basically your own personal 1 to 10 scale of how hard a particular exercise is for you.

A 1? Very easy.

A 5? Somewhat hard, a little out of breath.

Or 10? Oh my gosh, I can do this for just 10 more seconds!!!

While there are many scientific personal fitness formulas (VO2 max, 1-RM, 220-age), they all measure workouts in a generic, one-size-fits-all kind of way. Yes, they are tailored, but they also don’t necessarily work well for everyone. For example, taking 220, minus your age gives you your estimated maximum heart rate for exercise. But, that doesn’t necessarily fit YOU perfectly, you would need a heart monitor close to hand, and if you take certain medications (e.g. beta-blockers) the formula can be way off.

Instead, focus on your rating of perceived exertion when doing any kind of exercise. And, for those of you that have just made the decision to get off the couch (awesome!), you should start out by keeping in the 2-4 range on the scale. This will keep you in a comfortable place where you are exercising, but not gasping for air, risking injury, or spending the next few days sore!

Using the RPE scale is often used for cardio exercise. This is indeed its best use. It helps you to walk, run, swim, etc at a comfortable pace at a comfortable distance. As that rating starts to get lower, you can increase distance or speed a little. However, the RPE scale can also be used for weight lifting or even housework. Mowing the yard? Congrats, you just did 30 minutes of exercise at an RPE of 3 (or however hard it felt to you). Doing pushups? Five pushups currently feels like a 4, while ten pushups might be a 7 for you.

Whatever workouts you are enjoying, keep the rating of perceived exertion scale top of mind. It will help you keep at a happy p(l)ace, give you a way to know if you’re really pushing yourself, and also avoid having to bring a calculator with you the next time you workout. 😉

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