The primary goal of any workout or exercise program is to look better and feel better. Cardiovascular fitness, one of the five health-related components of fitness, is considered the most important. Unfortunately, it is often neglected or an after thought when it comes to developing an effective exercise program.
Cardiovascular fitness (also referred to as cardiorespiratory fitness) is the ability of the circulatory system (the heart and blood vessels), together with the respiratory system (the lungs and diaphragm), to supply oxygen to working muscles during exercise. Your heart and lungs are essential for good overall health and survival. A person with good cardiovascular fitness is less likely to suffer from health conditions like heart disease, type 2 diabetes and stroke.
You can improve your cardiovascular fitness by engaging in exercises that challenge the heart and lungs. Cardiovascular exercise, or aerobic exercise, is activity that raises your heart rate and keeps it elevated for an extended period of time. This type of exercise typically involves the use of the body’s largest muscle groups, primarily the legs and back. Examples of cardiovascular exercise include:
- Walking (brisk)
- Jumping rope
Benefits of Cardiovascular Exercise
The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) recommends 30 minutes of moderate-intensity daily physical activity, most days of the week, to maintain good overall health and function (working hard enough to break a sweat but still able to carry on a conversation). This is suggested because of the wide range of benefits that result from a consistent cardiovascular exercise program.
Maintaining a healthy body weight. When your body moves, you need energy to do the work. This comes from energy stored in blood and in fat cells. When your body is moving continuously for a prolonged period of time (more than 20 minutes) the majority of energy comes from the break down of fat cells.
Improving cardiovascular function. With improved cardiovascular fitness your heart becomes stronger and can pump blood through your body more effectively and efficiently. As a result your heart doesn’t have to work as hard and your resting heart rate goes down.
Increasing life expectancy. During an average lifetime the human heart will beat approximately 2.6 billion times. Improvements in cardiovascular fitness result in a lower resting heart rate. The lower our resting heart rate, the higher our life expectancy.
Reducing the risk of preventable disease. Heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women and more than one third of American adults are obese (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2012). The CDC specifically recommends cardiovascular exercise for the prevention of both because a consistent program can improve heart and lung function and body composition.
Improving mood and reducing stress. Cardiovascular exercise stimulates various brain chemicals that may leave you feeling happier and more relaxed. Research suggests moderate intensity cardiovascular exercise performed three times per week for up to 12 weeks (sessions lasting more than 20 minutes) has the most impact on reducing stress.
Understanding Heart Rate
Heart rate is the average number of heart beats per minute. When the heart beats the heart contracts and pumps blood through your system. It is an important measure for cardiovascular fitness and to determine cardiovascular exercise prescription.
Resting Heart Rate (RHR): Is the number of beats per minute your heart makes while you are in a complete rest state.
Maximum Heart Rate (MHR): Is the maximum number of beats per minute your heart can make. Maximum Heart Rate can be determined by subtracting your age (in years) from 220 (MHR = 220 – age).
Target Heart Rate: Is the beats per minute (bpm) at which your heart should be beating during aerobic exercise. Below is an outline of various Target Heart Rate zones.
- Light Exercise: Heart health (50 to 60% MHR)
- Weight Loss: Burning calories (60 to 70% MHR)
- Aerobic Exercise: Cardiovascular endurance (70 to 80% MHR)
- Conditioning: Fitness conditioning/athletic training (80 to 90% MHR)
- Sports Performance: Elite training/conditioning (90 to 100% MHR)
Measuring Cardiovascular Fitness
When it comes to an exercise program, progress and measurements are important for motivation and progress. There are several ways to evaluate cardiovascular fitness. Some require a technician and sophisticated machinery (i.e. Ivan Drago in Rocky IV) and others can be done on your own and are easy to monitor and measure.
In order to determine changes in cardiovascular fitness it is suggested that you use the same testing protocol each time.