How to Improve Cardiovascular Fitness

Four Parts:Measuring Your Starting Fitness LevelGetting Started with Aerobic ExerciseMaximizing Your TrainingUsing Technology to Improve your Fitness

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:[1] reducing the risk of heart disease and stroke; aiding in weight loss; lessening the risk of osteoporosis (weakening of the bones); and improving cognition.[2] Follow these tips to measure and improve your cardiovascular fitness, whether you are an elite athlete or just starting your workout routine.

Part 1
Measuring Your Starting Fitness Level

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    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.
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    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.[3] 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.
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    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.[4]
    • 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).[5] 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.[6]
    • Or try the following formula that takes into account physical condition and the type of activity: 217 – (.85 x age)[7]
      • 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.
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    Test your maximum heart rate with a SubMax test. For greatest accuracy, you will need to perform an HRmax stress test, but if you are in poor shape, taking a Max heart rate test will be difficult and perhaps dangerous. Instead, try averaging the results of these tests and one of the formulas above.[8]
    • The 1 Mile Walking Test – Go to a track and walk four continuous laps as fast as is comfortable. During the last lap, take your pulse four times (keep walking while doing so), or use your heart rate monitor to determine your average heart rate. Add to this average rate:
      • +40 bpm if in poor shape.
      • +50 bpm if in average shape.
      • +60 bpm if in excellent shape.
    • The 3 Minute Step Test – Use an 8” step. Start stepping up and down in a four-count sequence: right foot up, left up, right down, left down. Count up, up, down, down for one set, doing 20 sets per minute for 2 minutes. Monitor your heart rate for the third minute. Add to your last minute’s heart rate average:
      • +55 bpm if in poor shape.
      • +65 bpm if in average shape.
      • +75 bpm if in excellent shape.
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    Perform a max heart rate stress test for the most accurate number. You can have your physician supervise your test, or pay $75-100 for a test with an Exercise Test Technologist, certified by the ACSM. Or, you can do one of the following tests yourself:
    • 800 Meter Track Test – Wear a heart rate monitor for this test. Run 400 meters (1 lap) at just below your max speed (90-95% of your HRmax as calculated from one of the formulas above). For the second 400 meters, run as hard as you can. Record the maximum heart rate you reach on the second lap. (FYI Very fit athletes may have to repeat the test after a few minutes of jogging to achieve a true maximum.)[9]
    • Hill Test – Find a hill that takes about two minutes to run up, and is step enough that you are breathing hard at the summit. Start the test about a 5 minute run from the hill. Start with a slow jog, then gradually accelerate so that you are running hard (85% of your HRmax as calculated from one of the formulas above) when you hit the base of the hill. Try to maintain your speed as you climb the hill. Note your highest heart rate on your way to the top of the hill.

Part 2
Getting Started with Aerobic Exercise

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    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:[10]
    • Walking.
    • Jogging or running.
    • Cycling.
    • Swimming.
    • Aerobics.
    • Rowing.
    • Stair climbing.
    • Hiking.
    • Cross country skiing.
    • Dance.
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    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.[11]
    • If you are in average shape, start with 30 minutes of exercise 3 to 5 days a week.[12]
    • If in excellent shape, start with 30-60 minutes of exercise 5 to 7 days a week.[13]
    • 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.[14]
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    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.[15] Start here if in average shape.
    • If performing high intensity exercise, aim to keep your heart rate between 80% and 95% of your HRmax.[16]
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    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).[17] 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.[18]
    • 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. When starting your exercise, gradually increase intensity until you are working out in your target heart rate range.
    • 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.
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    Add to your workouts slowly. Muscles and joints take longer to adapt to the stress of exercise than your heart and lungs, so to avoid injury, do not increase your time or distance by more than 10 to 20% each week. For example, if you start out exercising for 10 minutes each session, add only 1 or 2 minutes a week for the first few weeks, even if you feel you could progress more quickly.[19] Adding too many workouts, or types of workouts too soon can cause over training and can lead to injury and even illness.

Part 3
Maximizing Your Training

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    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.[20]
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    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.[21] 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.[22]
    • If in poor shape, start with 10-15 minutes of moderate intensity distance work 3 times a week, and add a minute to two minutes a week until you are exercising in 30 minute intervals.
    • For fit individuals, a minimum of 30 minutes, 3 times a week is necessary to improve cardiovascular fitness.
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    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)[23] and increasing peak oxygen intake (the amount of oxygen you can consume while working out).[24] For HIIT, make sure you have warmed up, then perform high intensity intervals at 85-95% of your max heart rate.[25]
    • 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.[26]
    • Work up to four 4 minute intervals with 3 minutes of active recovery.[27]
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    Use high intensity continuous training to reach elite fitness levels. When working out at high rates, your body does not absorb enough oxygen for energy to be produced by the normal pathway. The result of low-oxygen energy production is an accumulation of lactic acid. When lactic acid builds up in your muscles, it quickly limits your ability to perform at a high level. High intensity continuous training increases oxygen uptake, thereby improving lactate threshold so that you can push yourself further.
    • Do not perform high intensity continuous training unless you are very fit.
    • For a high intensity continuous training session, exercise for 25 to 50 minutes, keeping your heart rate at 80-90% of max.

Part 4
Using Technology to Improve your Fitness

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    Use technology to help you stay on track. Heart rate monitors have come a long way! They now can track your steps, your heart rate, your nutrition, your sleep and more. These are a great way to customize your workouts and tailor them to what your body needs. In addition to tools like a heart rate monitor, there are a variety of different tools available to help you set and meet your work out goals. Studies show that smartphone apps[28] and exercise trackers can help to improve fitness.
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    Get a heart rate monitor. To workout efficiently, it is imperative that you have a heart rate monitor.
    • Chest strap monitors are the most accurate. These monitors go around your chest, and typically communicate wirelessly with a watch on your wrist.[29]
    • A variety of watches with built in heart rate monitors are now available. They are more convenient than chest straps, but while they are improving rapidly, they are still less accurate at measuring heart rate during exercise.[30]
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    Use a smartphone app to keep track of your workouts. Motivation is the main factor in improving cardiovascular fitness. Smartphone workout tracker apps have been shown to increase motivation and to provide results similar to going to a gym regularly. They can do everything from suggesting workouts, to tracking your progress during a run, to providing a place to record workouts.[31]
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    Use a fitness tracker to motivate you. Fitness trackers are devices that you wear on you, and which keep track of the number of steps you take, the number of stairs you climb, and in some cases, your heart rate as well. They allow you to set goals you wish to reach each day. The have been shown to encourage increased activity and thereby improve cardiovascular health.[32] Particularly for those who are just starting out in their fitness routine, they can provide an easy way to make sure you are getting the exercise you need.
    • This is a great swap for utilizing a personal trainer. Some people cannot afford a personal trainer and this is a great way to hold yourself accountable. On the other hand, many fitness professionals use apps like these to keep tabs on their clients.


  • Even though you can expect benefits from engaging in cardiovascular exercise, not all exercises are suitable or safe for everyone. You should consult with your doctor before beginning any exercise program

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Categories: Cardio Exercises