This question can be a bit difficult for beginners to navigate.  Given all the mixed messages we’ve heard about exercise from the notion that working out feels like being kissed by angels to the notion that all real exercise is accompanied by excruciating pain, it’s a little tough to know just how you should feel while working out.

As with most things,the truth is somewhere in the middle.  You should feel like you are expending some energy as you exercise.  At the same time, you should not be experiencing pain as you exercise either.  And the way you feel during exercise will also be impacted by what type of exercise you are doing, how familiar you are with that form of exercise and what fitness goals you are trying to achieve.  Let me give you a basic rundown based on exercise type.


Aerobic Exercise:  During this form of exercise, the goal is to raise  your heart rate and sustain it at a slightly elevated level during your workout.  There’s lots of information available about what heart rate you should reach and not exceed.  But I find for most people, it is more helpful to use the “Rate of Perceived Exertion) or RPE to determine their appropriate exercise levels.  I like to use a tool I call the “sweat scale” to determine your RPE.  If you imagine a scale from 1 to 10, with 1 being how you feel when you are sitting on the sofa watching TV and eating cheezy poofs and 10 being how you feel when you are working out so hard you feel like somebody better call 911 because you are having a heart attack, we generally want to work out at between 6 and 8 on this scale to achieve maximum benefit from your workout.  This generally feels like you are working moderately hard.  You are breathing more deeply than usual, but not gasping for air.  You should be able to speak in short sentences, but you probably can’t sing while you are working at this level.  You are usually pretty sure you can keep exercising another 5 minutes at this level, but not sure you can work out another half hour or more.  Now you don’t have to work out at this level to be aerobic.  Any level over your normal resting level can count towards aerobic exercise.  But you generally don’t want to work out over this level for any sustained level of time.

One thing you’ll want to be very aware of as you exercise are any “warning signs” or what I call “dashboard indicators” from your body that let you know that something is wrong.  If you are unfamiliar with exercise “warning signs” please go here on my website and read the “Five Things You Should Know Before You Work Out” article.  It is really important to know this stuff, and it can save your life.


Flexibility Training: This very important, but often overlooked type of exercise encompasses such practices as yoga and stretching.  Flexibility training not only makes it easier to move around, but also helps you avoid falls and prevent injuries in everyday life.  The key to flexibility exercise is to move your body to a point of gentle tension but not pain.  A good stretch feels a little bit like a yawn.  Your body reaches and expands, you feel a pleasant sense that you are moving your body a bit beyond it’s average range and you feel a gentle tug in your muscles.  Once again, this should not feel painful.  With this form of exercise, it’s particularly important to tune in and pay attention to the messages your body is giving you.  You may even wish to keep a journal and write down how various stretches feel to you, so you can get a sense of what works well for you in your practice.  Remember that in general you want to do static stretches, where you move your body into position and hold the stretch for ten to fifteen seconds.  Bouncing as you stretch or “ballistic stretching” can easily move your body outside of a good range of motion and lead to injury.


Strength Training: Also called resistance training, this is where you use some sort of resistance to help build muscle mass and make you stronger.  This resistance can come in the form of weights (everything from dumbbells to water bottles), elastic bands (also called resistance bands), weight machines (including nautilus, and other cable systems) or even just the pull of gravity against your body (including things like crunches and squats).  Strength training is also a time when it is particularly important to tune into your body’s messages.  Good strength training should make you feel a gentle burn or warmth in your muscle.  It should be clear that your body is doing extra work, but you should not feel pain.  You also shouldn’t feel a sense of impending loss of muscle control.  If you are exercising alone and without a trainer, you probably don’t want to work your muscle to exhaustion, where your muscles begin to shake and it’s clear you can’t do one more rep.  That said, it’s quite normal for your muscles to feel tired after a certain number of reps.  Remember to check out that document on my website, and familiarize yourself with the exercise warning signs.

When you are first starting out, it’s pretty normal to feel some confusion about how hard you should be exercising.  This is a place where working with a personal trainer or group exercise instructor can really help.  Even if you can’t afford to work with a trainer for months on end, you could meet with a trainer for a few sessions, just to learn what your body can do and make sure you’ve gotten off to a good start.

But no matter how you approach it, remember to listen to your body and do what feels best for you.

Love, Jeanette (AKA The Fat Chick)

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