Exercise for Rehabilitation & Health

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    Mar 09 2015

    Choosing the Right Exercise Intensity

    The burning Question - How hard should I be aiming to exercise to achieve the greatest health benefits - as seen in Membership Matters, March 2015 edition (Diabetes Australia Victoria) author Nicole French

    As an Accredited Exercise Physiologist, I am often asked how hard exercise needs to be in order to be effective. This month’s blog aims to explore the topic of exercise intensity, more specifically how different intensities can influence health outcomes and whether you should focus more on exercise effort or how long the exercise lasts for.

    Let’s first have a quick look at the different intensities of exercise:



    Feels like


    • Activities that usually involved sitting or lying and that have little additional movement and a low energy requirement

          e.g. sitting on the couch or at a desk

    • No exertion
    • Easy breathing
    • No sweating


    • An aerobic activity that does not cause a noticeable change in breathing rate
    • An intensity that can be sustained for at least 60 minutes

    e.g. gentle walking in a shopping centre, dusting, washing

    • Still breathing comfortably
    • Conversations possible


    • An aerobic activity that is able to be conducted whilst maintaining a conversation uninterrupted
    • An intensity that may last between 30 and 60 minutes

    e.g. brisk walking, recreational swimming

    • Aware of breathing harder
    • May be feeling warm


    • An aerobic activity in which a conversation generally cannot be maintained uninterrupted
    • An intensity that may last up to about 30 minutes

    e.g lap swimming, jogging

    • Breathing hard
    • Getting uncomfortable
    • Very tiring
    • Sweating


    • An intensity that generally cannot be sustained for longer than about 10 minutes

    e.g. Running,

    • Forceful breathing
    • Uncomfortable
    • Exhausting
    • Heavily sweating

    Should I aim to exercise harder or longer?

    Both moderate and vigorous intensity exercise can be used to meet the minimum exercise recommendations for people living with diabetes. However, participating in vigorous intensity exercise may save you time, since the harder the exercise the less time you need to do it for.

    How much more time efficient can vigorous exercise be?

    Current exercise recommendations for people living with type 2 diabetes indicates that you should accumulate a minimum of:

    • 210 minutes of moderate intensity exercise per week (30 minutes 7 days a week), or
    • 125 minutes of vigorous intensity exercise per week (25 minutes 5 days a week)

    Therefore, you could save 85 minutes a week if you were able to build your fitness up to a point where you could exercise vigorously.

    If I exercise more, will I enjoy greater benefits from my exercise?

    The simple answer is yes. If your exercise routine fulfills the minimum amount of exercise you should see some improvements in your blood glucose control, however if you were to exercise more than this, you can expect even greater health benefits.

    The latest research indicates that how hard we exercise (intensity) can be more important in improving blood glucose control than how long we exercise (duration).

    Tips to increase exercise intensity:

    Walking -

    • Include walking for higher intensity bouts, for example 4 minutes of slow walking and then 2 minutes of brisk walking
    • Stair or hill climbing

    Water exercise -

    • Use resistive devices such as kickboards, noodles and flippers
    • Swim one fast lap for every few slow laps

    Weights -

    • Use heavier weights
    • Increase the number of repetitions or sets you do

    Theraband work -

    • Make the band shorter to increase the intensity
    • During exercises, hold the stretch for longer

    Jogging -

    • Incorporate short bouts of fast running or sprinting

    Cycling -

    • Hill climbs
    • Short bouts of ‘sprints’
    • Try a BPM class for a high intensity workout

    If at this point you are thinking ‘but I can’t exercise vigorously’, please don’t be dismayed. We know that there are terrific benefits in moderate intensity exercise for blood glucose control, blood pressure, cholesterol, body fat and many more. You should always work at an intensity that provides a challenge for you but that is also safe given your personal medical history and any movement limitations you may have. Ask yourself the simple question ‘is this a challenge’ when you are exercising, if the answer is yes then you are doing a great job, if it is no try working a little bit harder.

    When is vigorous exercise not recommended?

    Vigorous intensity exercise is generally well tolerated, even in older adults; however there are circumstances when this intensity would not be recommended. If your blood pressure or blood glucose levels are not well controlled, if you have complications with your eyes or if you have unstable heart disease then we would not recommend vigorous exercise. It is also advisable to seek the guidance of a suitable health professional before commencing vigorous intensity physical activity to ensure that you are safe to do so.


    Higher intensity exercise can offer greater health benefits when compared to light-moderate intensity exercise.  It is more important than duration to improve blood glucose control and it can also be more time efficient. Many individuals report that the challenge that accompanies higher intensity exercise increases their motivation to adhere to a regular program which is important in sustaining health benefits in the long term.

    It is advisable that prior to starting a vigorous or high intensity exercise program that you seek the advice of a medical professional and consider any pre-existing health conditions you may have to ensure the safety and appropriateness of this type of exercise. It is also recommended that you follow an individually prescribed program by a qualified health professional such as an Accredited Exercise Physiologists