Cardiovascular fitness refers to the efficiency with which the heart pumps blood and oxygen to the body. Improving your cardiovascular fitness will allow you to walk further and exercise longer. It also has a number of health benefits: reducing the risk of heart disease and stroke; aiding in weight loss; lessening the risk of osteoporosis; and improving cognition. Follow these tips to measure and improve your cardiovascular fitness, whether you are an elite athlete or just starting your workout routine.
Determine your starting level in order to know how frequently and hard you can work out
The less fit you are, the more slowly you will need to ease into your workout routine, but the quicker you will see gains. If you are already very fit, you will have to work extremely hard to further improve your cardiovascular fitness.
Decide what kind of shape you are in
Before you can determine your maximum heart rate – a key number for creating efficient workouts – you’ll need to estimate your overall fitness level. Remember to start low and go slow. You do not want to overdo your workouts initially. This prevents injury and allows your body to catch up.
- Poor Shape – If you do not exercise at all, or have not exercised in the last eight weeks. Remember: it does not matter how thin you are. You can be very thin and still in poor cardiovascular condition.
- Average Shape – You participate in any aerobic activity – walking, running, biking, swimming, rowing, etc. – 3 times a week for 20 minutes.
- Excellent Shape – You run or walk at least 5 miles a week, and have regular training sessions that total over 1 hour a week.
Estimate your maximum heart rate (HRmax)
Your HRmax is just what it sounds like: the fastest your heart can beat while exercising. It is the baseline for determining the heart rate ranges you will want to hit while working out, and differs for different types of exercise – highest while running and lower while biking and swimming.
- The traditional way to calculate your HRmax is to subtract your age from 220. For example, if you are 40, subtract 40 from 220 to get a maximum heart rate of 180. However, this method can be off by as many as 20 beats per minute (bpm). For serious training, you will want a more accurate number.
- Try the “best fit” formula developed by HeartZones training to find your running HRmax: 210 minus 50% of your age minus 5% of your body weight (pounds) + 4 if male and 0 if female. For example, a 40 year old male weighing 200 pounds would have the following HRmax: 210 – 20 (50% of age) – 10 (5% of weight) + 4 = 184.
- Or try the following formula that takes into account physical condition and the type of activity: 217 – (.85 x age)
- Subtract 3 beats for athletes in excellent shape under 30.
- Add 2 beats for a 50 year old athlete in excellent shape.
- Add 4 beats for athletes in excellent shape who are 55 and older.
- Subtract 3 beats for rowing training.
- Subtract 5 beats for bicycle training.
Pick the type of aerobic exercise you enjoy most
Working out will be easier, and you will get better results, if you choose an aerobic activity you enjoy. Add a variety of exercises to your routine so that your body never gets too comfortable and accustomed to one type of exercise. This allows you to constantly change and improve. Aerobic activities that improve cardiovascular health include:
- Jogging or running
- Stair climbing
- Cross country skiing
Vary your workout length depending on your fitness level
The fitter you are, the longer and more frequently you will have to workout to continue to improve your cardiovascular fitness.
- If in poor shape, start with 10-15 minutes of exercise 3 days a week.
- If you are in average shape, start with 30 minutes of exercise 3 to 5 days a week.
- If in excellent shape, start with 30-60 minutes of exercise 5 to 7 days a week.
- Performing a high impact activity like running, dance, or aerobics more than 5 days a week causes an increased risk of injury. Pick 2 or 3 activities’ that use different muscles and movements, and be sure to alternate high and low impact activities.
Base the intensity of your workout on your heart rate
When doing continuous aerobic exercise, try to keep you hear rate within your target zone in order to maximize the benefit you receive from the workout.
- If in poor shape, begin by aiming for a heart rate under 145 bpm.
- If in performing moderate intensity exercise, try to keep your heart rate between 60% and 75% of your HRmax. Start here if in average shape.
- If performing high intensity exercise, aim to keep your heart rate between 80% and 95% of your HRmax.
Don’t forget to warm up and cool down
Warming up helps to prevent injuries and helps your body transition efficiently from a low metabolic state (burning fewer calories per minute) to a high one (burning more calories per minute). Cooling down helps bring blood that has been sent to working muscles back into normal circulation, and will reduce aches and the potential for cramping.
- Warming Up – Perform the workout activity you will be doing at a much lower intensity for 5 to 10 minutes. You can also stretch after warming up.
- Cooling down – After finishing the aerobic portion of your workout, gradually decrease your pace. For example, if running, slow down and then walk for 5 to 10 minutes. If cycling, reduce pedal speed and resistance for the last 5 to 10 minutes. After cooling down is the best time to stretch in order to improve overall flexibility.
Perform your exercise at a variety of intensity levels to maximize your progress
Current research shows that the quickest way to improve cardiovascular fitness is to combine large volumes of moderate intensity distance training with less frequent use of high intensity interval training (HIIT) and high intensity continuous exercise, all of which target different aspects of fitness.
Use moderate intensity distance training to build endurance
In this form of training, you should work out at a steady pace that keeps your heart rate at 60-75% of max for the duration of the workout. This form of exercise is most effective at increasing the amount of blood your heart can pump with each beat, a key factor in improving cardiovascular fitness.
Use high intensity interval training (HIIT) to quickly improve aerobic capacity
One of the big advantage of HIIT workouts is that they are over more quickly. Studies show that HIIT is more effective than moderate intensity training at lowering blood pressure, increasing lactate threshold (the intensity of exercise at which there is an abrupt increase in blood lactate levels) and increasing peak oxygen intake (the amount of oxygen you can consume while working out). For HIIT, make sure you have warmed up, then perform high intensity intervals at 85-95% of your max heart rate.
- Do not engage in HIIT more than 2 days a week.
- Only begin HIIT after you have established a good base of cardiovascular fitness. You should be able to perform 30 minutes of moderate intensity distance work.
- Start with 4 short intervals of 60 to 90 seconds at 85-95% HRmax, with 1 to 2 minutes of active recovery at 60-70% HRmax in between. For example, if running, you would alternate a fast run with a slow jog.
- Work up to four 4 minute intervals with 3 minutes of active recovery.