This is an age old question. People tend to choose either end of the spectrum and the reality is that it falls somewhere in between. Some people are afraid to hurt themselves and under challenge themselves with exercise (1-4 RPE below). Others can’t help but always push as hard as possible and can in fact then over stress their tissues and cause injury (8-10 RPE all the time).
The reality is, if we do want to improve our health with exercise, we do need to “challenge it to change it”. If we don’t, we give our body no need to change. The easiest way to gauge this is using the Modified RPE and time/reps in reserve (we included this within the RPE). On average, the best way to do this is aiming for exercising at about a 6-7/10 (about 30 seconds or 5 reps in reserve). A lot of people tend to focus on soreness, but the research is clear that aiming for the right RPE tends to create the best improvements. That said, the above recommendations is for an experienced exerciser or with an experienced activity.
If you haven’t exercised or performed a specific activity in a while, you should probably shoot for 4-5/10 initially and gradually increase to the 6-7/10.
Now, variability is important. Not just with what exercise or activity you do, but how intense. You should mix in some days of pushing yourself closer to a 9/10 for shorter periods of time and other days where you take it easier down to a 3-5/10 for at least 30 minutes if not much longer.
The take home is that our body responds to the loads and stress placed upon it. If you don’t push your body to enough RPE, you simply won’t force it to improve. As you improve, your body will require you to challenge it more by adding more weight to your resistance training, speed/hills to your run, etc.
We don’t want to lose sight that many individual’s struggle is just to get moving in the first place. So, if you get out there and exercise for 30 minutes daily at a 3/10 RPE, you probably won’t improve, but you will probably do enough to at least maintain, and for some people, that’s enough!
So, consider your goals and choose your RPE appropriately. If you choose to push it more consistently to that 6-7/10 we promise that you will be thankful for your hardwork. More importantly than improving at your exercise or activity, the rest of your daily activities and your overall health will be improved, giving you the freedom to enjoy your life to the fullest!
Dr. Dane Happeny, PT, DPT, OCS
Doctor of Physical Therapy
Board Certified Orthopedic Specialist