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Cardiovascular Fitness and Your Heart

During February, Americans observe Heart Month—a time spent raising awareness around the leading cause of death in the U.S.—cardiovascular disease. While it’s great that there’s an entire month dedicated to this issue, heart disease is something we need to tend to year-round by knowing risk factors and taking appropriate measures to prevent it.

Most of us are familiar with the traditional risk factors of cardiovascular disease, such as hypertension, high cholesterol, obesity, diabetes, a poor diet, and low physical activity levels. But what many fail to recognize is the vital relationship between cardiovascular disease and cardiovascular fitness. Low cardiovascular fitness is a leading risk factor for cardiovascular disease, while high cardiovascular fitness, on the other hand, can have a favorable effect on reducing cardiovascular risk long-term.

Here we aim to explain what cardiovascular fitness is, its impact on cardiovascular health, and ways to improve our cardiovascular fitness.

Understanding cardiovascular fitness:

Generally speaking, cardiovascular fitness (sometimes used interchangeably with the terms cardiovascular endurance or cardiorespiratory fitness) is the ability of the body’s cardiovascular and respiratory systems to supply oxygen-rich blood to working muscles during sustained physical activity.

When we breathe, oxygen enters the lungs and then passes into our blood. After the blood absorbs the oxygen, it transfers to the heart, where the heart pumps the oxygenated blood through the body to our muscles and organs.

With high cardiovascular fitness, the heart muscle strengthens and enlarges, and the blood vessels dilate, allowing more oxygen-rich blood to be pumped through the body with each heartbeat. In other words, the easier it is to deliver blood to your organs, the less strenuous it is on your heart, which is why improving cardiovascular fitness can improve cardiovascular health.

How to improve cardiovascular fitness:

Lifestyle behaviors that focus predominantly on optimizing cardiovascular fitness will allow you to mitigate a majority of the risks associated with cardiovascular disease. And luckily, there are ample ways to do so:

1. Regular and consistent aerobic exercise

Exercises that increase your oxygen intake and heart rate, like aerobic workouts, are most beneficial for your cardiovascular fitness levels. But in order for physical activity to qualify as an aerobic exercise, it must be something that keeps you moving for a sustainable amount of time.

According to the American Heart Association’s (AHA) Recommendations for Physical Activity, adults should partake in at least 150 minutes (or 2.5 hours) of moderate-intensity aerobic activity or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity weekly. For moderate-intensity, consider activities such as brisk walking, dancing, casual biking, swimming, or tennis. For vigorous-intensity, try running, hiking, jumping rope, or cycling 10 MPH or faster.

2. Weight management

In addition to exercise, it’s essential to understand that cardiovascular fitness can be intensely affected by different parts of wellness, too. When we consider that body mass is a factor that influences oxygen consumption, it’s reasonable to examine the relationship between body weight and cardiovascular fitness—which confirms that overweight adults have significantly lower levels of cardiorespiratory fitness because extra weight can reduce the efficiency of blood circulation. Therefore, it’s essential to reduce body fat and maintain a healthy weight.

The most effective way to lose weight for better cardiovascular fitness is not through aerobic exercise alone but rather in conjunction with a decrease in caloric intake through a healthy diet and other lifestyle changes. Finding and adhering to a balanced weight loss program that forms to your needs—like guiding you towards heart-healthy foods and activities that improve blood flow—will enable you to maintain a healthy weight and enhance your cardiovascular efficiency simultaneously.

3. Assess your cardiorespiratory health

To continue maintaining good cardiovascular fitness and lower your risk of cardiovascular disease, the AHA recommends measuring your levels during regular clinical visits or checkups. Health professionals can conduct an exercise stress test to assess how efficiently your heart works during physical activity. They will monitor your heart rate, blood pressure, breathing, and electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG) while you walk or run on a treadmill. Based on your results, your physician will be able to detect various heart problems and recommend further testing and treatment.