How Hard Should You Work Out?

Try these easy tests to help you understand if you’re working out at the right intensity, so you can make the most of any activity even with arthritis.

By Mary Anne Dunkin

You already know that regular strength and cardiovascular exercises can boost your overall health and improve your flexibility, joint function and your mood when dealing with arthritis. But if you’re not sure how hard you should be working out to get the most benefit and least risk of injury, take these self-assessment tests.

The Talk Test
Try the “talk test” for a cardio workout: If you can talk but not sing during an activity, you’re probably working at moderate intensity – enough to improve fitness, but not to the point of risking injury. If you are very physically fit, you may need to train at a higher intensity – where talking is difficult – to improve athletic performance, according to a study published in the Journal of Sports Science. 

“For the non-athlete, there is almost no time when you would not want to be talking comfortably,” says Carl Foster, PhD, director of the Human Performance Laboratory at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. Plus, moderately intense exercise is more efficient than strenuous exercise at burning fat, and because it is more pleasant, you are more likely to stick with it long-term, he adds.

The Strength Test
For strength training exercises, complete each exercise with light weights. Go slowly, using a “two-up, four down” count for each repetition. Then ask yourself these questions: 

1. Were you able to complete two sets of 10 repetitions in good form?

Yes. Good, keep it up.
No. Reduce the weight to an amount that you can lift 10 times in good form; rest for one or two minutes, then do a second set.

2. After completing 10 repetitions, do you need to rest because the weight is too heavy to complete more repetitions in good form?

Yes. You’re working at the proper intensity. Don’t increase the weight.
No. If you can do only a few more repetitions (not another set of 10 without a break), then at your next workout you should do the first set of repetitions with your current weight and your second set with the next weight up. For example, if you're currently using 1-pound dumbbells, use 2- or 3-pound dumbbells for your second set.

If you could have done all 20 repetitions without a break, use heavier dumbbells for both sets of repetitions at your next session.

The Two-Hour Pain Rule
If you have more joint pain two hours after exercising than before you started, you’ve overdone it. Ease up at your next workout. If the pain persists beyond a few days, see your physician.

Tracking Your Heart Rate
The American Heart Association recommends monitoring your heart rate when participating in any fitness program – even one as simple as walking – to make sure you aren’t overdoing it. Some tips to keep you on target:

  • Calculate your approximate maximum heart rate by subtracting your age from 220. Then multiply that number by .50 and by .75. That will give you a target heart rate range of 50% to 75% of maximum heart rate. For example: If you are 66 years old, your approximate maximum heart rate is 154 (220-66 = 154). Fifty percent of that number is 77; 75% is about 115. So your target heart rate range during exercise would be 77 to 115 beats per minute. You can find this number by wearing a heart rate monitor, or simply by checking your pulse for 10 seconds and multiple by six.
  • Aim for 50% of your target heart rate when you start a program. If you have been walking for some time, try to reach 75%. It can help to combine both heart rate and talk test – so if you’re able to say a few words or short phrases (“I’m doing great!”) you’re probably in a moderate zone; if you can only say one or two words at a time, you may be going too hard and need to back off. On the other hand, if you can easily hold a detailed conversation, you may want to increase intensity a bit.

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