Are you trying to improve your level of fitness? Have you set a goal to get more physical activity? Government health experts provide guidelines that can help you improve your overall health. One important recommendation involves getting more aerobic exercise to improve cardiovascular fitness.
Understanding the definition of cardiovascular fitness and how it affects your overall health can help you include the right types of exercise in your schedule to reach your health goals.
Cardiovascular Fitness: Definition, Types, Recommendations
Cardiovascular fitness is the capacity of the cardiovascular system (heart, lungs, and blood vessels) to supply oxygenated blood to working muscles. It also includes the ability of the muscles to use the oxygen delivered by the blood supply as a source of energy for movement.
Cardiovascular exercise is movement that requires the delivery of oxygen to the muscles. Another word for cardiovascular exercise is aerobic exercise. The word "aerobic" means with oxygen.
There are different types of cardiovascular or aerobic exercise. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines these categories based on the intensity of the movement.
- Low-intensity cardiovascular exercise increases your heart rate to a level that does not exceed 63% of your maximum heart rate.
- Moderate-intensity cardiovascular exercise elevates your heart rate to 64%-76% of your maximum heart rate.
- High-intensity cardiovascular exercise elevates your heart rate to 77%-93% of your maximum heart rate.
You can use a fitness tracker or heart rate monitor to see your heart rate during exercise. To estimate your maximum heart rate or see your heart rate zones, use a chart like the one provided by the American Heart Association.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) provides guidelines for adults regarding the amount of aerobic or cardiovascular exercise they should get each week to gain substantial health benefits.
- Get 150-300 minutes per week (2 hours and 30 minutes) of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise, or
- 75-150 minutes per week (1 hour and 15 minutes) to 150 of vigorous-intensity aerobic exercise, or
- An equivalent combination of moderate- and vigorous-intensity aerobic activity.
The CDC adds that physical activity should be spread throughout the week and that you can gain additional health benefits by engaging in physical activity beyond 300 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity per week.
Health Benefits of Cardiovascular Fitness
Why is aerobic fitness important? According to the HHS, a healthy cardiovascular system can help reduce your risk for many life-threatening conditions.
Maintaining cardiovascular fitness can help to prevent:
- Arterial blockage
- Atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries)
- Blood clots
- Cardiac arrhythmia
- Congestive heart failure
- Coronary artery disease
- Heart attack
- High blood pressure
- Insulin resistance syndrome
- Peripheral artery disease
In addition to these benefits, getting regular physical activity is also linked to slow or reduced weight gain, reduced depression, lower anxiety levels, and improved quality of life.
5 Ways to Improve Cardiovascular Fitness
Anyone can take steps to improve their cardiovascular fitness. There are several things that you can do to make sure that your cardiovascular system is fit and healthy.
Smoking is one of the leading contributors to heart disease and cancer. If you are currently a smoker, talk to your healthcare provider about taking small steps to quit. Even if you don't feel that you are ready, just learning about different ways to quit can plant the seed so that when you are ready, you've got the resources to start your journey.
Get Regular Exercise
Regular exercise conditions your heart and allows it to pump the blood throughout your body more efficiently. While any exercise can help strengthen your heart, aerobic activity, in particular, improves cardiovascular efficiency, endurance, and strength.
Some examples of aerobic activities for cardiovascular fitness include:
- Aerobic dance
- Brisk walking
- Elliptical trainer
- Exercise bike
- Interval circuit training
- Jumping rope
- Spin class
- Yoga (certain types)
Stress is a contributor to heart disease. Too much stress results in elevated cortisol and adrenaline levels in the body. Having chronically high levels of these two hormones has been linked to heart disease, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol.
If you are chronically stressed, try to find something that helps relax you and counteract your stress response. Activities like deep breathing, meditation, yoga, or regular exercise can help to alleviate stress levels.
Get Enough Sleep
A recent publication from the National Institutes of Health discussed the link between poor sleep and heart disease. And another NIH publication explores how getting better sleep may protect against heart disease. Both research projects were preliminary (involving mice), but researchers anticipate that human studies will confirm their suspicions that high-quality sleep supports good heart health.
The ideal amount of sleep for a healthy heart is about seven hours per night. Take steps to create a calm, peaceful sleeping environment and then regularly schedule a good night's rest.
Eat a Healthy Diet
A heart-healthy diet provides high-quality nutrition to keep your energy levels up and helps to keep blood lipid levels in their ideal range. In general, health experts define a heart-healthy diet as low in sodium, low in saturated fats, simple carbohydrates, processed foods, and sugars. The diet should provide adequate amounts of lean protein, fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
Finally, as you explore different ways to improve your cardiovascular fitness, remember that taking small steps is usually the best path to reach long-term health or fitness goals. If you've identified different areas to address, tackle one at a time. As you find success with one area, then begin to explore another.
And remember to reach out for help if you need it. Professionals such as your healthcare provider, a registered dietitian, or a certified personal trainer can help you reach your health goals.