Science Is Onto You and Your Lazy Workouts

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Robert Oberst of USA competes at the Atlas Stones event during the World's Strongest Man competition at Yalong Bay Cultural Square on August 24, 2013 in Hainan Island, China.
Photo: Victor Fraile/Getty Images

Tough workout this morning? Yeah, maybe not. New research is here to poke holes in your exercise pride, suggesting that people tend to overestimate how intensely they’re working out. Both men and women are equally likely to do this, found the study, which was published recently in PLOS ONE

Researchers from York University in Canada asked participants to walk or jog on a treadmill at speeds they felt was light, moderate, and vigorous. Most everyone in the study nailed the easy pace. But the volunteers fell short of meeting the requirements of the vigorous pace, which is defined according to Canada’s standards as raising your heart rate reach between 77 and 93 percent of its max. Most people in this study didn’t even reach 75 percent.

There’s a dumbed-down way of pushing yourself to the correct heart rate, though, and it’s called the “talk test.” As U.S. government health guidelines note:

The talk test is a simple way to measure relative intensity. As a rule of thumb, if you’re doing moderate-intensity activity you can talk, but not sing, during the activity. If you’re doing vigorous-intensity activity, you will not be able to say more than a few words without pausing for a breath.

Confession: Deep into marathon training delirium a few years back, I absolutely tried the sing-test thing. It did genuinely seem to work, with an added bonus of making the miles fly by faster, although singing to myself (out loud and in public) didn’t do much to relieve the runners-are-crazy stereotype.