What Is Cardiorespiratory Fitness? A Cardiologist Answers

If you took your pulse right now, you would learn something about yourself. Maybe you’re relaxing post-work and rocking a super-low resting heart rate. Maybe your ticker is speeding up to race a deadline at work or to help you crush a cardio workout. Whether we realize it or not, our hearts are constantly responding to the changing landscape of our lives. And a new study shows that, when it comes to helping them do their jobs correctly, we could all use a little more cardiorespiratory fitness in our lives.

“Cardiorespiratory fitness is the capacity of the heart and lungs to deliver oxygen to the body’s muscles and organs during physical activity,” says Michael Weinrauch, MD, a New Jersey-based cardiologist. “Higher levels of cardiorespiratory fitness are associated with the ability to perform [more] or higher-intensity exercise.” What’s more, having a high cardiorespiratory rate is associated with lower cardiovascular and all-cause mortality—so it’s a powerful metric for assessing your longevity and well-being.

How medical professionals measure a person’s cardiorespiratory fitness is by assessing their “peak oxygen uptake” or VO2 max. To capture this metric, they perform a Cardiopulmonary Exercise Test (CPET) that involves sitting on a stationary bike while breathing through a mouthpiece that measures lung strength during and after exercise. And even though you can’t take a cardiorespiratory test without the help of a pro, a new study published in the European Heart Journal suggests that spending an extra 17 minutes (yes, only 17 minutes!) doing cardio could also help your heart and lungs keep up with you.

Conducted on 2,000 people aged 45 to 63, the study found that, by clocking an additional 17 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity (like a power walking or a jogging) each day, participants increased their peak oxygen uptake level during exercise by a full five percent. The research also showed that they could gain the same peak oxygen uptake level increase by walking at a relaxed pace for an additional 54 minutes per day, or reducing 249 minutes of sedentary time every 24 hours.

The latter finding means that you’d have to spend four less hours being still each day, which—let’s face it—just isn’t reasonable for the vast majority of us. So if you do want to level up your cardiorespiratory fitness, you’re probably better off with a fast-paced neighborhood walk, or a longer leisurely stroll with a friend. And take note: If walking isn’t your jam, Dr. Weinrauch says a ride on a stationary bike can also tick the box for casual or vigorous activity.

Last but not least, Dr. Weinrauch also stresses that 17 minutes won’t be the magic bullet for everyone. You’re a unique snowflake (in the very best way!), so it’s always key to talk to your doc about the best approach to physical activity for you. “At the end of the day, these numbers are a guide, and their real value is that they further underscore much of what we already know, which is that the value of even 15 to 30 minutes of fast walking has a great deal of health benefit,” he says.

Wondering how a cardiologist uses a heart rate monitor? Here’s your intel: 



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