Easier Exercise Improves Health

Exercising at a comfortable pace has big benefits. Source: U.S. Air Force

Doing exercise can be hard work. No wonder only 28% of adults in Australia achieve the recommended amount of physical activity. With the rise of weight loss TV shows, ex-army personal trainers and infomercials for exercise equipment we can be misled into thinking that exercise needs to be tortuous to obtain health benefits. No pain, no gain, right?

Well not according to research done at the University of South Australia. They found that previously sedentary people who trained at a ‘somewhat hard’ intensity were able to make significant improvements to their physical fitness and overall health, including lowering their body mass index (BMI), cholesterol and blood pressure. The best news was that the volunteers reported that exercising at this intensity felt pleasant. Sounds great, but you’re probably asking “what do you mean by ‘somewhat hard’ exercise?”

The Borg RPE scale - simple, yet effective

The research used something called the Borg RPE scale. No, it’s not some sort of robot that measures how much you weigh, it’s a simple method used by exercise researchers to measure how hard someone is working. RPE stands for ‘rating of perceived exertion’ and Borg is the guy who came up with it. The exerciser looks at the chart, shown right, and assigns a number to describe the effort they are putting in. It may look basic, but it has been shown to be quite an accurate and reliable measure.

The volunteers in the study were classed as sedentary, meaning that they weren’t performing the recommended 30 minutes of moderate exercise on five or more days per week. After initial testing, they trained three times a week, spending 30 minutes running on a treadmill per session for eight weeks. However instead of being told what speed they needed to run, the volunteers were able to adjust the settings of the treadmill as they went, only being told to work at an RPE of 13, or ‘somewhat hard’.

When compared to a control group who didn’t train, the exercise group improved their aerobic fitness by 17% as well as making significant improvements to BMI (they lost weight), blood pressure and total cholesterol levels. More importantly, the volunteers felt good as they exercised, finding it a comfortable if not pleasant pace to be running.

One of the main reasons people don’t stick to an exercise plan is that they don’t enjoy it. People are also more likely to stick to a plan if they have some control over how hard they need to work during the sessions. By giving the exercisers control and getting them to work at a comfortable pace, the researchers suggest people may be more likely to maintain a programme based on the RPE scale over the long term.

So if you’re looking to start an exercise programme for health, fitness or other benefits, remember to aim for exercise that feels ‘somewhat hard’. A little bit of pain will help you make gains, but remember to enjoy yourself as well!


Parfitt, G., Evans, H., & Eston, R. Perceptually-regulated training at RPE13 is pleasant and improves physical health. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, Publish Ahead of Print. doi:10.1249/MSS.0b013e31824d266e. Retrieved April 4, 2012.

Borg, G. A. V. (1982). Psychophysical bases of perceived exertion. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 14(5), 377-381. (see ACSM Archives)

News report from Science Alert


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