Cardiovascular endurance refers to your body’s ability to pump blood (and therefore oxygen) through your veins and to your organs. It also refers to how long you can exercise at a moderate intensity, which conditions your heart and lungs and keeps them operating efficiently. The longer you can go (struggling to jog for 20 minutes vs running easily for 30, for example), the better your cardiovascular health.
Why do we want to be able to exercise for a long time? Well, lots of reasons. According to the American Heart Association, a stronger, healthier heart and lungs mean a lower risk of developing heart disease and diabetes, reduced stress, a stronger immune system, increased bone health and blood flow, better sleep, and maintaining a healthy weight. Strengthening your heart means it can pump more blood, more easily. And that’s a very good thing.
Luckily, even if you’re a couch potato, you can improve your cardiovascular endurance, and therefore, your health.
It takes consistent work and effort over an extended period of time to make major improvements. You should notice small differences after a month, with notable improvements after two to three months of consistent work. The two things to remember? Volume and intensity, or, how long you exercise and at how fast (or intense) a pace. Challenging your heart and your lungs is the key.
What does that look like?
Slow and steady wins the race! Going too hard too quickly increases your risk of injury. Upping your sweat sesh by just 10 percent each week is the general recommendation. That means if you normally hop on the treadmill for 60 minutes throughout the week, aim for closer to 70 next week, and so on.
Other options for increased volume include running an extra loop around the block, walking to the further mailbox, or riding your bike to the next major intersection before heading back home.
To up the intensity, you need to add resistance. Try running along the beach, walking up stairs, or biking uphill. HIIT (high intensity interval training) is another great way to seriously up the intensity – and you can do this at home. HIIT activity means bursts of intense effort followed by easy recovery. When starting out, you can work out intensely for 30 seconds or one minute, and rest for two. Eventually (about three to four weeks in) you’ll do a minute of each.
HIIT is best for people who are already moderately active, but even beginners can get there eventually. Slowly upping the intensity and resting for a couple of days between HIIT workouts reduces risk of injury, since the rest of our body (muscles, bones, joints, tendons) don’t improve as quickly as your cardio endurance does.
Walking is a great choice for beginners looking to slowly increase their cardiovascular exercise. Once you’re comfortable walking at a moderate pace, trying jogging for a minute, and then return to walking. If you already run, sprint for a minute and then dial it back. Mix up your speed and distance. Repeat 10 times.
You can also add bursts of intensity to weight training days, boosting your heart health (the heart is a muscle, after all!) while you build muscle. If you’re doing squats, try a few sets of jump squats and skater lunges on leg day. In between weight reps, do 10 burpees, 25 jumping jacks or 30 mountain climbers. Focus on getting that heart rate up even when building strength.
Other aerobic exercise options include swimming, dancing (Zumba classes are a great option!), and jumping rope.
A personal plan
Stamina means different things for different people. For an Olympic athlete, adequate cardiorespiratory endurance means being able to complete the 1,500-metre freestyle, or a 10,000-metre run. For a busy mom, endurance might mean being able to easily jog alongside her kids while they ride their bikes. For a senior, going for a long walk every morning without feeling winded or playing with the grandkids may be enough.
The American Heart Association recommends 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise (meaning exercise where you can still carry on a conversation) per week to benefit your heart and lungs. Only one in five adults and teens get this amount. Bumping it to 300 minutes has even more benefits for heart and lung health, as does upping the intensity. (High intensity means you’re sweating and talking is difficult.)
Knowing your resting heart rate will help you determine your target heart rate (50 to 70 percent your maximum for moderate intensity exercise), which tells you how know how hard you have to work to get your heart really pumping. The Dara Smart Scale monitors and tracks 17 health measurements, and can help you stay on track and reach your fitness goals.
Even if you’ve been sedentary and are worried about starting an exercise program, don’t fret! Start small. Every bit counts. You don’t need to do 20 laps in the pool or go running for an hour right out of the gate. Start simply by walking. It’s easy, free and you can do it anywhere! Getting outside is also a boost to your mental health. Aiming for one to three low intensity, 40 to 90-minute cardio workouts a week is a good plan for beginners.
The AHA offers a good takeaway: “Move more, with more intensity, and sit less.”
Doing so will increase your cardiovascular fitness, one HIIT session at a time!