Exercising to your max? Try the “talk test!”

Posted by on Sep 16, 2011 in exercise | 0 comments

Have you heard of  the “talk test?”

Evidently, the talk test may be an easy way to gauge how hard you are exercising and if you need to “up” or “lower”  your intensity level. And we know that exercise is an excellent way to maintain overall wellbeing, keep the blues at bay, improve bone and heart health, boots sexual function and possibly even ameliorate certain menopausal symptoms, which is why gauging how you’re doing may be important.

For those of you unfamiliar with the talk test, its underlying premise is that if you can respond to conversation while exercising, you are exercising at an intensity level that is “just about right.” Studies have shown that if an individual can talk comfortably during exercise, he or she is likely exercising at about 75% of their maximal oxygen consumption and 85% of their maximal heart rate. These targets are commonly used in exercise training. However, if an individual is unable to talk comfortably during exercise, he or she is likely pushing target rates up to 90% and 92% respectively. Still, it all gets a bit fuzzy after the age of 40 since in aging individuals, target heart rates vary fairly widely. Moreover, certain exercise intensities may be inappropriate for someone just starting out on an exercise programs or with health or weight issues.

While experts have been fairly certain that the test is an accurate gauge of how much oxygen is being used up during exercise, they are less certain if the test corresponds with how much lactate the muscles are producing during activity, and more importantly, if the body is producing more than it is using up. Too much lactate leads to sore muscles and less productive exercise; in other words, individuals are forced to slow down. Ideally, the goal is to work out at an intensity that best uses our oxygen capacity and doesn’t cause too much lactate to build up in the bloodstream.

In this very small study of 15 men and women, researchers from the University of New Hampshire first measured lactate and oxygen reserve levels while participants exercised on a treadmill at different speeds and inclines. The next day, they administered the talk test by having the participants read the Pledge of Allegiance while exercising on a treadmill at differing intensities that mimicked those the day before. Every three minutes, they were asked if were able to speak comfortably or not or if they were unsure.

Surprisingly, it appeared that the talk test actually corresponded more closely with the lactate threshold than the ventilatory threshold. When people in the study were exercising at the lower end of their exercise intensity and could speak comfortably, they were consistently well below their lactate threshold. However, when they started to suddenly breathe harder and were unable to speak comfortably (i.e. likely outside American College of Sports Medicine guidelines not to exceed 94% target heart rate or 79% maximal oxygen capacity), they were consistently above their lactate threshold. With regards to heart rate and maximal oxygen capacity, being able to speak comfortably did correspond to exercise intensity but not as closely as to the lactate target.

The researcher suggest that if you are beginning an exercise program and can still talk while exercising, you’re doing okay.  But, to increase and enhance endurance, you may want to think about pushing it up a notch or two, not quite to the ‘out of breath’ stage but closer to “heavy breathing,” which will correspond more closely to the line between using muscles to the max and overdoing it.

On the plus side, this is truly an easy way to gauge your training efforts. On the minus side, the study was in a very small group of healthy people who were no older than 35. So, more information is definitely needed on more sedentary populations. Still, it can’t hurt to try.

This time, talking the walk, and not simply walking the walk,  may be the way to go…


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