Many methods are available to measure activity intensity

The holidays are over. The cookies and treats are all eaten. The relatives have left, and the decorations are put away. The only thing not gone is the extra pounds I gained.

So I exercise, sweat and hit the gym (which is crowded, by the way, with all the other "January do-gooders"). "Not today, though, I need to return some Christmas gifts." "Tomorrow I will go to the gym for sure." "I was going to exercise yesterday, but I couldn't get a ride to the track."

The promises are already fading. Why do we make this so difficult? The gym and the track, the classes are all great ways to get motivated, but they are motivating only if we show up. Walking or jogging right outside your neighborhood with an iPod or music in your ear might be a little easier. So how fast and how hard should we walk or jog? There are three ways to measure this.

Measure That heart rate

The first is the most accurate but the hardest to do. Measure your exercise heart rate. Using the fingertips of the first two or three fingers on your other hand (not your thumb), press lightly at the wrist, straight down from the pointer finger. Count the beats for 15 seconds (wait three minutes of walking or jogging before gauging your pulse).

See if that number, which reflects your intensity level, is within a recommended range for you. If you are a beginner and are less fit, your intensity level should be between 50 and 70 percent. A range between 70 and 85 percent is good for more fit individuals.

Here is a simple formula to use:

n Exercise heart rate at 50 percent = (220-age) x .50

n Exercise heart rate at 70 percent = (220-age) x .70

n Exercise heart rate at 85 percent = (220-age) x .85

So, for example, if you are 72 years old and a beginner, it would look like this:

220-72 = 148 x .50 = 74 beats per minute or BPM (low range)

220-72 = 148 x .70 = 104 beats per minute or BPM (high range)

I like to calculate this ahead of time so I don't have to do the math while walking or jogging:

74 BPM ÷ 4 = 18 (for a 15-second count)

104 BPM ÷ 4 = 26 (for a 15-second count)

Now, when you are walking or jogging, every time you take your heart rate for 15 seconds, it should be between 18 and 26. For more information, type "Target Heart Rate CDC" into your Internet browser.

Count your footsteps

The second way to gauge your intensity level with much less math is by counting your footsteps for one minute. This is called the "count test." Moderate levels (e.g. brisk walk at roughly 3-3.5 miles per hour) require approximately 90-113 steps per minute (113 steps is for individuals with shorter legs, while 90 is for taller people). After counting your steps, adjust your pace by speeding up or slowing down.

Try the Talk Test

Finally, if you are not really about numbers and counting but still want to measure relative intensity, try using the "Talk Test." This means gauging how hard you are working by how hard you are breathing. For moderate activity, your heart rate and breathing will increase, and you might even sweat a little, but you should be able to carry on a conversation comfortably while doing the activity. If you have rapid breathing or become too out of breath to carry on a conversation, the activity is likely to be vigorous (e.g. race walking, jogging or running).

Be sure to warm up before starting your cardio activity by gradually increasing your speed, and cool down afterward by gradually decreasing your pace. A racing heart during standstill causes the blood to pool in the extremities. This leaves little blood flow for transporting to the brain and can cause you to get light-headed or pass out. A gradual cool-down gives the heart time to return to its normal state.

So whether you monitor your heart rate, count your steps or check intensity by talking, know your limits. Listen to your heart. Don't ignore pain. "No pain, no gain" means "no brain."

Anne R. Lindsay is an assistant professor and exercise physiologist at the University of Nevada Cooperative Extension. She conducts research and programming in adult fitness, physical activity, body image and childhood obesity prevention. Contact her at