How you can feel confident exercising at the right level for you (hard enough to benefit, without overdoing it)

Lady swinging kettlebell

You want to stay active for longer. You know that exercising will help you to keep fit and remain healthy. However, it can be difficult to know what to do and how hard you should be working.

You may have some aches and pains, perhaps some health challenges (arthritis, high blood pressure) or have had a recent procedure (a new hip or knee). You know you need to do something, but you don’t want to do anything that will cause damage or injury.

You may have concerns about being pushed too hard by an instructor or about overdoing it in your enthusiasm. Perhaps you are worried that a class or programme will be too strenuous.

You know that ‘no pain, no gain’ isn’t right for you. At the same time, you don’t want to be patronised with ‘gentle exercise’. You know that you need to put in some work to reap benefits.

This article will help you to learn what it should feel like when you are exercising at the right level for you.

You will feel confident wherever you exercise – at home, in a class or at the gym – that you know how to manage your intensity level. You will be able to make sure you exercise enough to benefit without doing anything too strenuous or causing an injury.

This information will be particularly valuable if you are not always exercising with an instructor or trainer. The more knowledge you have, the more confident you will feel about exercising independently.

How Jean gained confidence through knowledge

Let me tell you about Jean, 72, who heard about our classes through a friend but was nervous about joining. She recently had a hip replacement and had been fairly inactive before the operation due to the pain from this hip.

She had been advised to exercise but was finding it hard to know what to do and to find a class that was right for her. In the gym, she felt intimidated surrounded by younger, fitter exercisers. In a big class, she didn’t feel well observed and was worried the instructor would push her too much and damage her hip further. She also felt tired afterwards and the next day.

She knew she had to do something but was worried about getting injured or being made to feel like a failure if there were things she couldn’t do.

To start with, I reassured Jean that being more active would be of great benefit to her. It would help her to regain the strength lost following her operation and build her overall fitness. She would also reap many other benefits – physical and mental – from exercising regularly.

We talked about how Jean should feel when she is exercising. I explained that, at first, she might mistake any sensation for pain and that it would take a while to get used to this. If you haven’t been active for a while, you may not be sure where the line is between working out and working too hard. Even if you are in a group class, you will benefit from learning for yourself what it should and shouldn’t feel like when you are exercising. You need to build up the knowledge and confidence to know when to keep going and when to ease off or stop.   

I also taught Jean an important rule of thumb – that she should always feel better when she leaves a class (or gym session, or home workout) than she did when she started. This rule helps you to judge if an activity is right for you and helps you to make informed decisions.

Here is some of the information I shared with Jean. You will learn how you will feel during and after exercise when you are working at the right level. This advice applies regardless of what type of exercise you choose to do but may also help you to choose the best activities for you.

How should you feel during exercise?

If you only remember one thing from this article, it is that you shouldn’t feel pain when you exercise. But you should feel something!

Read on to see how you should feel when performing different activities. This knowledge will be invaluable in helping you to become confident that you can exercise safely in any situation.

Cardiovascular activities

Cardiovascular (or aerobic) exercise includes activities like brisk walking or running, dancing, sports, swimming and using CV equipment in a gym.

Recommendations are to perform 30 minutes of moderate-intensity activity on most days of the week.

A note about high-intensity exercise

There are also benefits to performing higher-intensity activities. Your exercise history, any health conditions you have or medications you are taking will all impact how much and at what level you should be performing higher intensity exercise (and how to monitor this safely). For this reason, we recommend taking advice from a suitably qualified exercise specialist or other health professional and are not going to cover this here.

How do I know what intensity I am at?

When doing any moderate intensity cardiovascular exercise, you should feel your heart pumping a little faster, and notice yourself getting warmer and a little bit out of breath.

You can use these simple questions to check what level you are exercising at:

  1. Can you easily talk and sing? That’s light intensity – great for the warm up and cool down.
  2. Are you breathing a bit faster? Can you talk but not sing? This level is moderate intensity – where you want to be most of the time.
  3. Are you breathing fast, and having difficulty talking? That’s high intensity.

So, if you are a bit out of breath, but can still more or less carry on a conversation, that’s perfect. Keep going!

If you get more out of breath and talking at all becomes difficult, then slow down a bit.

You shouldn’t feel lightheaded or dizzy at any time. Take a breather if you do. If you feel any pain or tightness in your chest, you should stop immediately.

What about the machines at the gym?

If you use cardiovascular equipment in a gym (treadmill, stationary bicycle, cross-trainer etc), you may have seen recommendations on the machine for the heart rate (HR) level at which you should be exercising. Please note that individual HR and HR response to exercise can vary considerably (and be affected by any medications you may be taking).

If you do wish to use HR monitoring in your exercise programme, please seek advice from an experienced instructor.

Warm up and cool down

A final note: Remember always to start and finish cardiovascular activities at an easy pace. A gradual warm up and cool down are crucial components of a safe and effective session.

What else - isn’t cardiovascular exercise all I need?

While cardiovascular exercise is important, there are other important components of fitness which challenge your body in different ways but won’t get you out of breath. These include muscle strengthening exercises, balance training and stretching.

Muscle strengthening activities

Examples of these include carrying or lifting heavy items, heavy gardening, resistance band exercises, body weight exercises (e.g. lunges) or using dumbbells or other weights (e.g. biceps curl)

You should feel your muscles working when you are performing strengthening exercises. It may even feel like a burning sensation.

If an exercise feels slightly uncomfortable, this could be a sign you need to adjust your posture or technique slightly. It doesn’t necessarily mean you shouldn’t be doing the exercise. So ask an instructor and don’t give up too quickly!

You should stop if you feel acute, sharp or stabbing pains in your muscles or joints.

Balance training

If you are doing balance exercises, you should feel a bit of wobbling. For example, if you are attempting to stand on one leg, you will feel a bit unsteady, and your ankle might be wobbling around. This wobbling doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be doing the exercise – far from it! It is good news – all the little stabilising muscles around your ankle are waking up and getting stronger.

Once a balance exercise starts to feel quite easy, congratulate yourself as you have mastered that one! You can progress to a more challenging version.

With balance exercises, you shouldn’t ever feel unsteady, unsafe or dizzy.

Always perform balance training next to a support (back of a chair/ table/ kitchen worktop) and start holding on. Only let go of the support once you feel ready and then keep your hands close by to hold on again if you need to.

Start with lower challenge exercises and build up gradually. If you feel dizzy, stop and sit down for a bit. Let the instructor know if you are in a class. If it happens repeatedly, you should mention this to a health professional.


There are different ways to stretch your muscles and, as with any type of exercise, it’s important to stretch with good technique.

The key thing to keep in mind when stretching is that you should feel a light stretching sensation in the area you are targeting, but it shouldn’t be painful.

How should you feel after exercise?

You should always feel better after an exercise session than you did before.

So, if you are exercising at the right level for you, you will feel energised, worked and somewhat tired (but in a good way).

If you are in pain or feel exhausted and want to go home and sleep for the rest of the day, then you probably did a bit much.

A short nap is fine, especially if you are the kind of person who likes to nap in the day (like me!), but if you are shattered and sleep for hours, then it is likely to have been too strenuous.

The day after (or, occasionally, two days after) you may have sore, achy muscles. This aching is just a sign that your muscles are recovering from the exercise, re-building and getting stronger. If the pain isn’t acute or sharp, then you shouldn’t worry. The best thing you can do is to keep moving. Gentle activity will help the muscles to recover quicker.

Three essential tips

These tips will help you to feel confident and make the most of any activity you are doing.

  1. Take your time

Don’t worry if it takes a while to work out what’s going on and get to know the feeling of exercising well – especially if you haven’t been very active recently.

You will build confidence in performing the activities, and it won’t be long before you can increase the challenge.

  1. Learn about what you are doing

Ask your instructor questions or listen to the instructions on a video a few times. This will help you to understand what you are trying to achieve with an exercise and how to do it well.

For example, if you are doing an exercise with a resistance band, ask the instructor which muscle it is working, and where you should feel it.

The more informed you are about what you are doing and how you are meant to do it, the more confident you will be. You will enjoy the exercise and be able to push yourself a bit more.

  1. Pay attention

Concentrating on what you are doing will help you to better manage your intensity and reap more benefits.

For example, if you are doing an arm curl, really think about the muscle (or just the area of your body) that you are working. Imagine it contracting and relaxing. You can even use colour or other imagery to help – I like to imagine the muscles glowing red! You can also think about them expanding in size.

Studies have shown that this mind-muscle connection increases the impact of the exercise. It will also help you to concentrate and be absorbed in the activity. You will get to the end of a session feeling like you have had a break from everything else whizzing round in your head and feel more relaxed and energised.

A couple of extra points

If you have any medical conditions or have recently had any operations or procedures, talk to your doctor, physiotherapist or another health professional. They can tell you if there are any movements you should avoid or anything you need to watch out for. Once you are armed with this information, you will be able to confidently commit yourself to exercise in the knowledge you are not going to do any harm.

If you have been unwell, take it easy and build up gradually again. You may have lost a bit of strength or fitness, but just start slowly and you will be able to build back up.

Top takeaways

To make sure you are working hard enough to benefit from exercise, but won’t overdo it, keep these two tips in mind:

** When exercising, you shouldn’t feel pain, but you should feel something (faster breathing, your muscles working, some feeling of challenge)

** You should always feel better after exercise than you did before (energised, worked out and ‘good’ tired)

I would love to know what surprised you most about this article. Leave a comment below or send a message on our contact page – I look forward to hearing from you!

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All material in this article and video is provided for information and educational purposes only. It is not advice and should not be relied on as such. Always consult an exercise or health professional if you have any health issues and need personalised advice. With this in mind, we hope you enjoy reading our articles and watching our videos.

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