As people age, heart disease is a significant concern for men and women alike. Cardiovascular fitness is not only a good step to improve heart health. It can also help you understand indicators of heart health including heart rate, blood pressure and cholesterol.
Cardiovascular fitness or endurance is a measure of how well your body takes in oxygen and delivers it to your muscles and organs when you exercise. If you're wondering how to have a healthy heart, one thing you should think about is how to improve this endurance. A large (and growing) body of research shows that improving your endurance improves your health overall.
Some benefits of improving your endurance include:
- Lower risk of heart problems. According to the European Society of Cardiology, better cardiovascular fitness translates to fewer heart problems, including heart disease and heart attacks. This applies even to people with a genetic predisposition to developing heart issues like atrial fibrillation, according to the American Heart Association.
- Longer life. In one study by the Cleveland Clinic, the participants with the highest levels of cardiovascular fitness had the lowest rates of death from any cause.
- Improved health outcomes. The American Heart Association indicates that better fitness means better overall health and lower risk of developing chronic diseases such as cancer, dementia, type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome as well as being associated with lower symptoms of depression.
How to measure your endurance
The best way to measure your cardiovascular fitness is to measure VO2 Max. This is a measure of how your body consumes and uses oxygen while you exercise. For the most accurate measurement, your doctor can perform a stress test. During the stress test, your doctor has you run or walk on a treadmill or ride a stationary bike. The speed increases until you need to stop or you reach the target heart rate, explains the Mayo Clinic. The doctor monitors your breathing, heart rhythm and blood pressure.
If you're regularly active, you can get an estimated measurement by doing a test yourself, either the Rockport 1-mile walk test or the Cooper 1.5-mile test. To conduct these tests, you either walk one mile as briskly as you can with no running or walk/run one-and-a-half miles as quickly as you can. You take your pulse and check your time at the end then enter those into a formula to calculate your VO2 Max measurement or use an online calculator like this one provided by ShapeSense to do the math for you.
Do not do any test at home if you get out of breath easily or haven't been running consistently. Your doctor can also measure your VO2 Max (the maximum amount of oxygen you can utilize during exercise) another way if the stress test is too difficult.
How to have a healthy heart
The best way to improve heart health is to improve your cardiovascular fitness. This starts with physical activity. What activities you should engage in all depend on your starting fitness level. If you are sedentary or have physical or health concerns, talk to your doctor to develop a plan to slowly introduce physical activity into your daily routine. Sometimes it can be as simple as parking farther from your building, taking the stairs more often or taking the dog out for a walk one extra time each day.
If you're in good physical shape, you just need to move more. Start by choosing an activity you enjoy and doing it a few days a week. The American Heart Association recommends adults get at least 150 minutes of physical activity each week. That translates to 30 minutes per day if you do it five days a week. Start with moderate-intensity, low-impact exercises such as walking, biking, swimming or water aerobics.
For more intense exercise, consider boxing, group fitness classes, running or hiking. At home, you can perform a circuit with a jump rope, burpees, stair steps and other activities that raise your heart rate.
No matter what your starting point, slowly add to it each week or month as you build up your endurance. You'll begin to reap the benefits of exercise right away once you get moving.