Many people know that cardiovascular fitness is an important aspect of being fit and healthy, however it is not always clear what exactly cardiovascular fitness means. Do you need to be able to run a certain distance without stopping? Does it matter if you use the best rowing machine (opens in new tab) or the best exercise bike? (opens in new tab)
To learn more about cardiovascular fitness, we spoke with Brynn Franklin (opens in new tab)an ACSM-certified exercise physiologist.
Brynn Franklin is an ACSM-certified exercise physiologist and ACE-certified health coach with an MS in Exercise Science. Her hands-on, day-to-day work focuses on improving women’s health, but she also has a history of helping people master corrective exercises in their training.
What is cardiovascular fitness?
“Cardiovascular endurance is how well the circulatory and respiratory systems can supply the body with oxygen during sustained physical activity,” Franklin told Live Science.
The better a person’s cardiovascular endurance, the longer they can sustain aerobic exercise (opens in new tab) without tiring or having to slow down or stop.
Having good cardiovascular endurance not only means a person can run further or swim more laps, it also provides improvements to physical and mental health. Some of the other benefits include stronger and more efficient heart function, improved breathing mechanics, lower resting heart rate, and reduced risk of heart disease and stroke. Improving your cardiovascular endurance can also improve your ability to metabolize fat during exercise.
How to measure cardiovascular endurance
So how do you know how ‘good’ your cardiovascular fitness is?
According to Franklin, “cardiovascular endurance is measured by looking at maximal oxygen uptake (VO2 max (opens in new tab)) and how it is used during intense exercise. In other words, how much oxygen you’re using, and how effectively it’s being used, tells us how well the cardiovascular and respiratory systems are working together.”
Franklin said that from a practical perspective, cardiovascular fitness can be assessed in several different ways.
“For starters, the Rockport Walk Test (opens in new tab) is a good way to measure cardiovascular endurance. The goal is to walk as fast as possible for a mile and then immediately take your heart rate for 10 seconds,” she said. “The heart rate is then put into an equation to find a person’s VO2 max.”
In this way, the Rockport Walk Test is a good field ‘test’ that a person can perform on their own without going to an exercise testing lab or using specialized metabolic equipment.
Another practical field test that Franklin recommended to assess cardiovascular endurance is the YMCA 3-Minute Step Test.
“The YMCA 3-Minute Step Test (opens in new tab) can be easily administered by climbing a 12-inch step while following a rhythm of 96 beats per minute for three minutes,” she said. “The pulse is taken immediately after the test for one minute. The pulse results are the result for the test.”
While both of these tests can provide a reasonable estimate of a person’s aerobic capacity, Franklin said the most accurate test for VO2 max is the Submaximal Treadmill Exercise Test, which should be administered by a physician or exercise physiologist in a laboratory environment.
“It involves a 20-minute test of varying intensities while your breathing rate and heart rate are measured,” Franklin told Live Science. “This test can be expensive and is used more often by elite athletes.”
Franklin explained that a person can interpret their results by comparing them to the instructions or the results chart associated with the endurance test you performed.
How to improve cardiovascular endurance
Although beginners are likely eager to improve their endurance and cardiovascular endurance quickly, Franklin said starting small is a viable, if not ideal, way. Overdoing it or doing too much too quickly can result in injury.
“Start with 10-15 minutes of work for the first week,” Franklin said. “Then gradually work your way up by increasing the distance, length of time, or incline by adding 10% to 20% each week.”
In other words, gradually increase the duration of a workout over time in a gradual but progressive manner. Of course, listen to your body as you go, pulling back when you need more healing.
The best types of exercise for cardiovascular endurance
Any type of exercise that a person can perform without stopping while getting your heart rate up in the aerobic zone can be used to increase cardiovascular endurance.
In general, the area of aerobic exercise (opens in new tab) considered to be 70% to 80% of a person’s maximum heart rate. For example, if your maximum heart rate is 180 bpm, a cardio workout would ideally put your heart rate in the 126-144 bpm range.
Examples of good aerobic exercise include walking, running, hiking, swimming, cycling, rowing, stair climbing, jumping rope, inline skating, cross-country skiing, and the elliptical machine. Franklin advised that the type of exercise you do isn’t as important as doing cardio, so you’re best off choosing an activity you enjoy.
“If you don’t enjoy doing it, then you won’t keep up and your cardiovascular endurance will suffer. Exercise should be fun and enjoyable,” she said. “You can focus on one or switch between different activities to keep things interesting and out of the ordinary.”