Many people know that cardiovascular endurance is an important aspect of being fit and healthy, but it’s not always clear what exactly cardiovascular endurance entails. Should you be able to run a certain distance without stopping? Does it matter if you use the best rowing machine? (opens in a new tab) or the best exercise bike? (opens in a new tab)
To learn more about cardiovascular endurance, we spoke with brian franklin (opens in a new tab)an ACSM-certified exercise physiologist.
Brynn Franklin is an ACSM Certified Exercise Physiologist and ACE Certified Health Coach, with a Master’s degree in Exercise Science. Her day-to-day practical work focuses on improving women’s health, but she also has a history of helping people master corrective exercises in her training.
What is cardiovascular endurance?
“Cardiovascular endurance is how well the body’s circulatory and respiratory systems can deliver oxygen to the body during sustained physical activity,” Franklin told Live Science.
The better a person’s cardiovascular endurance, the longer they can sustain aerobic exercise (opens in a new tab) without fatigue or the need to slow down or stop.
Having good cardiovascular endurance not only means a person can run longer or swim more laps, it also offers improvements to physical and mental health. Some of the other benefits include stronger and more efficient heart function, improved breathing mechanics, lower resting heart rate, and reduced risk of heart disease and stroke. Improving your cardiovascular endurance may also improve your ability to metabolize fat during exercise.
How to measure cardiovascular endurance
So how do you know how ‘good’ your cardiovascular endurance is?
According to Franklin, “Cardiovascular endurance is measured by looking at maximal oxygen consumption (VO2 max. (opens in a new tab)) and how it is used during intense exercise. In other words, how much oxygen is used and how effectively it is used tells us how well the cardiovascular and respiratory systems work together.”
Franklin said that from a practical perspective, cardiovascular endurance can be assessed in a number of different ways.
“For beginners, the Rockport walk test (opens in a new tab) is a good way to measure cardiovascular endurance. The goal is to walk as fast as you can for a mile and immediately take your pulse for 10 seconds,” he said. “The heart rate is then entered into an equation to find a person’s VO2 max.”
In this way, the Rockport walk test is a good “field test” that a person can perform on their own without going to an exercise testing lab or using specialized metabolic equipment.
Another viable field test that Franklin recommended to assess cardiovascular endurance is the YMCA 3-Minute Step Test.
“The YMCA 3-Minute Step Test (opens in a new tab) it can be easily administered by climbing a 12-inch step while following a cadence of 96 beats per minute for three minutes,” he said. “The pulse is taken immediately after the test for one minute. The pulse results are the test score.”
While these two tests can provide a reasonable estimate of a person’s aerobic capacity, Franklin said the most accurate test for measuring VO2 max. is the Submaximal Treadmill Exercise Test, which must be administered by a physician or exercise physiologist in a laboratory.
“This is a 20-minute test of varying intensity while breathing rate and heart rate are measured,” Franklin told LiveScience. “This test can be expensive and is most often used by elite athletes.”
Franklin explained that a person can interpret their results by comparing them to the guidelines or results chart associated with the stress test they took.
How to improve cardiovascular endurance
Although beginners are likely eager to improve their endurance and cardio endurance quickly, Franklin said starting small is a viable, if not more ideal, way to go. Overdoing it or doing too much too soon can lead to injury.
“Start with 10 to 15 minutes of work the first week,” Franklin said. “Then gradually increase your path by increasing distance, time, or incline by adding 10% to 20% each week.”
In other words, gradually increase the length of a workout over time gradually but progressively. Of course, listen to your body as you go, backing off when you need more recovery.
The Best Types of Exercise for Cardiovascular Endurance
Any type of exercise that a person can do nonstop while raising their heart rate into the aerobic zone can be used to increase cardiovascular endurance.
Generally speaking, the aerobic exercise zone (opens in a new tab) it is considered to be 70% to 80% of a person’s maximum heart rate. For example, if your maximum heart rate is 180 bpm, ideally a cardio workout would put your heart rate in the 126-144 bpm range.
Examples of good aerobic exercises include walking, running, climbing, swimming, bicycling, rowing, stair climbing, jumping rope, rollerblading, cross-country skiing, and the elliptical machine. Franklin advised that the type of exercise you do isn’t as important as cardio, so you’re better off choosing an activity you enjoy.
“If you don’t enjoy doing it, then you won’t continue and your cardiovascular endurance will suffer. Exercise should be fun and enjoyable,” he said. “You can focus on one or go through different activities to keep things interesting and unmundane.”