By Kathy Smith

Anytime you feel you’re not getting as much out of your training as you should, the problem may not be how long you’re working but the

degree of commitment and intensity you bring to it. Walk into any gym and look down the rows of treadmills and stationary cycles.

What do you notice about the people working out? Chances are there’s one person watching TV, one reading a book and another who’s

plodding along at a snail’s pace of about 3.2 miles per hour.

Most people fall into a "comfort zone" when they work out, a zone well below their limit. This happens because they don’t

have a concept of their potential range of exertion nor of what it feels like to dial up the horsepower to something approaching their


When I work with people to help them improve their intensity, I start by teaching them a 10-point scale of perceived exertion. I get them

on the treadmill and put them through their paces to show them what each part of the range feels like.

I’ve found that most people, most of the time, work at an effort level of about 4 to 5. They’re literally just going through the motions.

Gradually, I coax them into going faster, and I help them associate their physical sensations with the numbers on the scale. Here’s how I

describe it:

  • Level 5 to 6: You’re cruising, and you can still carry on a conversation, but you probably couldn’t do this for more than about 20


  • Level 7 to 8: You’re starting to perspire and getting a little winded. It’s difficult to carry on a conversation and you feel as if you

    couldn’t keep up this pace for more than about 5 minutes.

  • Level 8 to 9: Now it feels like the homestretch of a race. You’re breathing hard and there’s a burning sensation in your muscles. You

    could probably do this for another 30 seconds, but then you’d have to stop.

There! We’ve found your anaerobic threshold, which is the point beyond which your heart and lungs are unable to keep sufficient oxygen

moving to the muscles and you’re forced to stop. Now that we’ve pushed you to that point, you have a concept of the full range through

which you could be working out.

Naturally, you can’t work continuously at a 9. But you’ll get more results -- and have more fun -- by cycling up and down through the full

range rather than just plodding along in that comfort zone. People often ask me why intensity matters. Don’t we burn the same number

of calories jogging a mile as running it?

Yes and no. The advantage of training at greater intensity is that it raises your metabolism to a higher level. Because your metabolism

remains high for several hours after exercising, that metabolic bump will cause your body to burn more calories between workouts than

you would otherwise.

But burning calories isn’t the only goal. Higher intensity training provides better conditioning of the cardiovascular system. And of course

there’s the time you save!

Just one caution: If you’re new to training -- and especially if you’re overweight -- don’t jump into overdrive right away. For you, low-

intensity training may be the safer starting approach and will help prevent straining joints and ligaments. As you shed some of the fat

and become stronger, you can begin dialing up the heat to further strengthen your heart and lungs and accelerate your results.

While we’re on the subject, the need for intensity applies to weight training too. In fact, there it makes all the difference. Your muscles

need to be challenged in order to develop strength and tone. Merely coasting through a weight routine won’t do it. Here are some tips:

  • Choose a weight level that will allow you to reach fatigue within 9 to 12 reps. Increase the

    weight as your strength improves, but only use as much as you can lift with correct form.

  • Perform reps slowly and with control, approximately 4 to 7 seconds per rep.

  • Keep rest periods between sets and exercises to 45 seconds.

  • Focus on what you’re doing: Perform every rep with total concentration and commitment.

Whenever I push people through a higher-intensity workout, they all agree they’ve never worked out like that before! My question is why