You’re Overestimating How Hard You Work Out

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Ever feel like you just had the fastest run of your life, but when you looked down at your sports watch it just laughed at you and said, “Nope, not even close”? It's funny how your body and mind can trick you into thinking you're an undiscovered Olympian when in reality you're barely breaking lactate threshold. Stop fooling yourself: Canadian researchers may finally have a good reason why it's so damn easy to overestimate exercise intensity without knowing it, according to a new study published in the journal PLOS ONE.

“All of these messages that we've been bombarded with over the last 20 years that says exercise should be fun and easy to incorporate into your life are great because people were turned off from physical activity when it was promoted as 'no pain, no gain'. But I think one of the consequences is that people are now underestimating what modern vigorous activity is,” says lead study author Jennifer Kuk, Ph.D., a professor at the School of Kinesiology and Health Science at York University in Toronto.

But here’s the thing: Intensity leads to results, not just putting in the time. What makes matters worse is that modern conveniences, like cars, have also removed us from mandatory daily vigorous activity, which now you only get when you seek it out on a recreational level, Kuk adds. Less exposure to vigorous activity makes it harder for most to define.

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As part of the study, Kuk and her team hooked 129 sedentary adults with Polar heart rate monitors and observed as they walked or jogged on a treadmill at speeds that they considered light, moderate, and vigorous intensity. On average, people were able to correctly guess what represents a light effort, however, when they were asked to pick up the pace, 52 percent of people continued to keep it pretty light. Only 19 percent actually made it to a moderate effort and just five percent reached a vigorous level. Gender didn't play a role in how people interpreted their efforts, but age did. “Older participants were better able to estimate intensity than the younger individuals,” says Kuk. 

The best way to make sure you're not cheating yourself during a workout is to wear a heart monitor, like Polar, and make sure you're in the right zone for you. Warning: These ranges may change as you get fitter. “People tend to get stuck running on the treadmill at the same speed, same incline, same allotted time, and never account that they are in better shape,” Kuk advises.

RELATED: The New Science of Getting in Shape

To calculate your max heart rate, do this math: 220 minus your age = estimated max HR. Once you know your range, grab the best gear. If you're not a fan of chest straps, we love TomTom's new Cardio Watch with GPS for Runners or Multisport, which debuted this spring ($299). Its built-in heart rate monitor has a futuristic senor in the wrist that shines a light through your skin to keep tabs on your changing blood flow using light reflections. The watch also features five intensity zones (one light, two moderate and two vigorous) to ensure you're not slacking on the job.

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