Cardiovascular fitness is a term that not everyone understands clearly. Essentially, it is a measurement of how the body brings in oxygen and how it uses it. It is also a measurement of how efficiently oxygen is distributed to other parts of the body via the heart, lungs and the whole system of veins and arteries. It should be understood as being different than “looking” fit, which may not say a lot about the fitness of the heart or lungs, and people should also be aware that they can improve their fitness.
Most often, articles that suggest ways to improve cardiovascular fitness focus on aerobic or cardiovascular exercise. This is undoubtedly important, but before getting there, people should take a look at any behaviors that may be reducing heart/lung fitness. In particular, types of diets people have if they contain a lot of saturated fats and trans fats, and smoking are two things that will made the cardiovascular system less efficient. It is important to improve diet by choosing heart healthy foods and to quit smoking. These two steps alone may keep the heart and lungs healthier and be a way to prevent heart and lung disease.
Those people who are already eating a good diet and who don’t smoke are halfway there to improve fitness. The other part is increasing levels of aerobic activity. Aerobic exercises mean getting the heart to a desired target heart rate and then maintaining that rate for 10-15 minutes, gradually extending this time to 20 minutes.
People may want to know how to assess target heart rate, and this can be a very individual process, though there are charts online. People who have not worked out for a while and those that have any medical conditions should speak to a doctor before trying to improve cardiovascular fitness and before assuming they know what their target heart rate should be. There are lots of mitigating factors, which may raise or lower the average target.
Once a person is aware of their target heart rate, they engage in some form of exercise that will elevate the rate to the target and keep it there. People may need to build up to this. It might only be possible to sustain the rate for a few minutes at first. However, this is the good thing about the cardiovascular system. As a person regularly exercises, their heart and lungs are trained to allow them to exercise more, so it does become possible to increase time at the target heart rate and thus improve cardiovascular fitness.
Part of the key to keeping heart and lungs healthy is regularly exercising. Someone who exercises once a week is doing better than the couch potato, but may not dramatically improve cardiovascular fitness. The goal for most people should be to attempt cardiovascular exercise at least three times a week. Regularly working the heart and lungs at greater capacity tends to create a stronger heart and lungs, which will be more efficient at taking in oxygen, using it and distributing it.
There are plenty of exercises that can help improve cardiovascular fitness, and usually people can find one or more of these that seem best suited to them. Consider the following as potential ideas to get started:
- Aerobic dance or step classes
- Tae Bo
- Fast Walking
- Cross-country skiing
- Cross-training machines
- Water aerobics
Bear in mind that some activities may be more efficient than others in raising the heart rate. When a person uses two major muscle groups at once as they might with swimming or in aerobic dancing, they are likely to increase their heart rate faster and be able to maintain it fairly easily. Using only one major muscle group in activities like walking or biking may mean working a little harder to hit and maintain the target heart rate.