Rating Your Heart Rate – Borg Scale

Performing cardiovascular exercise when we were younger was pretty simple. Most people don’t think much about just going for a run, playing in a pickup game, or just getting a good sweat on. As we age, the vast majority of people start to develop various cardiovascular issues or pulmonary issues that make cardiovascular exercise more necessary, but sometimes more risky. Getting the appropriate type and amount of cardiovascular exercise is a difficult balance to achieve for many people, and it prevents them from getting sufficient exercise.

The Borg Scale of Perceived Exertion (commonly referred to as the Borg Scale or Borg) was developed to help simplify this issue. Physical therapists, personal trainers, and cardiac rehab specialists can all use this scale to assist their patients or clients to safely participate in cardiovascular exercise. Notice the difference in these professions. A personal trainer will be seeing a significantly different population than a cardiac rehab specialist, but this scale still applies. The application will be different, but the scale still works.

So what is the Borg Scale?

In short, it was developed as a way to try to estimate a person’s heart rate based on the person’s perception of their effort during an activity. The scale goes from 6 to 20, with 6 being essentially no activity to 20 being the absolute maximum effort a person can do for only a short time. Why is the scale this way? If you multiply the rating by 10, you get an estimate of your heart rate. So a person jogging at a 13/20 would likely have something close to a heart rate of 130 beats per minute (bpm), which is a perfectly fine heart rate for a healthy individual while jogging. Harvard’s School of Public Health has a great article with a chart that explains the entire scale with some example activities.

One of the best benefits of the Borg Scale is that it allows someone to reliably estimate a person’s “true” heart rate when they’re taking beta-blockers. Beta-blockers, and some other cardiac medications, alter (in this case suppress) an individual’s heart rate, even during physical activity. For example, a person on beta-blockers who is working out on an elliptical may be working incredibly hard and feel exhausted, but their heart rate may only measure to be 110 bpm (a relatively low heart rate for exercising). The Borg Scale allows the individual or the person monitoring their symptoms to modify their activity as necessary to maintain safety. It should be noted that any person who is taking any medications for the heart, blood pressure, or cardiovascular system should talk to their primary doctor before starting an exercise routine, but it’s not a bad idea to ask even if you’re not in that group of people.

For people who want a simpler scale, a modified Borg scale (conveniently enough called the Modified Borg Scale) operates on a 0 to 10 scale, with 0 being effectively no effort and 10 being all-out maximal effort. This scale works the same as far as providing some guidance on how hard a person feels they are working and can also correlate to a person’s heart rate, the math just gets a little messier. A 5/10 on the Modified Borg Scale would be roughly equivalent to a 13-15/20 on the standard Borg Scale.

So how do we use this information? In general, your goals will help determine what amount of effort you should aim for, and your overall health will determine your starting point.

For otherwise healthy individuals, aim for a 4-6/10 on the Modified Borg or a 12-16/20 on the standard Borg Scale for steady state exercise (such as distance running, biking, swimming).  For interval training, think about increasing your level of effort by about a 2-3/10 for the more difficult interval.  An example could be holding a 5/10 for your “rest phase” and 7/10 for your “effort phase”.

For individuals who have known or are suspected to have cardiovascular or pulmonary issues, talk with your doctor first. Unless you have specific instruction from your doctor when cleared to perform cardiovascular exercise, you would probably be safe to start with a perceived effort of a 2-4/10 on the Modified Borg or 9-11/20 on the standard Borg Scale for steady-state exercise. Interval training is also an option here, but be sure not to exceed a 6-7/10 of perceived effort until you’ve had several months of consistent exercise. You’d also want to make sure you were cleared for vigorous activity by your doctor before ramping up the intensity that high.

Getting started with cardiovascular training doesn’t have to be complex. Even with all the biomarkers and measurements that exist, one of the better ways we have is simply asking ourselves how we’re feeling.  Using either the Borg Scale (6-20 scale) or Modified Borg Scale (0-10 scale) is an easy way to demystify cardiovascular training and help keep yourself healthy and moving.

Got questions? Feel limited in what you’re able to do?  The staff at Limitless Physical Therapy in Eugene, OR can show you how to discover your future without limits.

***The above information, including text, images, and all other materials, is provided for educational purposes only, and not as a replacement or supplement to professional medical advice.  Please contact a certified physical therapist, your primary physician, or a certified healthcare professional for any personal concerns.

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