Cycling is good for your cardiovascular system as it can strengthen the heart muscles and reduce blood fat levels. (Credit: Getty Images)
With cardiovascular disease (CVD) being one of the leading causes of death worldwide, the health of your heart, blood and blood vessels is paramount. No matter your age, staying active and maintaining an overall healthy lifestyle are building blocks for a good cardiovascular system.
Exercise is one of the most effective ways to strengthen the heart muscle and improve cardiovascular fitness.
The World Health Organization recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise or 75 minutes of intense exercise – or a combination of both – every week, possibly coupled with two sessions of strength work. The more varied your workouts and the more frequently you exercise, the better, although simply adding some gentle exercise to your daily routine is a good place to start.
Research shows that regular physical activity can help keep your heart in good shape and boost overall wellbeing. It can also reverse the effects of a sedentary lifestyle and ward off a host of potentially life-threatening conditions, such as heart failure and stroke.
Let's find out more about cardiovascular fitness, why it matters and how to get the heart-healthy benefits of working out.
What is cardiovascular fitness?
Walking, jogging and running are some of the most beneficial types of cardiovascular fitness exercise. (Credit: AIA)
The cardiovascular system works around the clock to supply nutrients and oxygen-rich blood to all parts of the body, while also collecting and carrying deoxygenated blood away from and back to the lungs.
Cardiovascular fitness measures how efficiently your cardiovascular system functions and how well the heart, lungs and muscles can take in and use oxygen, especially when you're exercising. This makes cardiovascular fitness a good indicator of how physically fit and healthy you are.
When it comes to heart health, aerobic exercise and any type of cardio activity that requires sustained effort are considered the most beneficial types of cardiovascular fitness exercise. These include walking, jogging, running, biking or swimming.
The benefits are generous, from strengthening your heart and blood vessels to improving the flow of oxygen throughout the body. These types of exercises also help lower blood pressure and cholesterol, reducing the risk of heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer's disease, stroke and some kinds of cancer.
Keep in mind, however, that consistency, intensity and variety are key to gaining the heart-healthy benefits of physical activity.
Aim to work out for the same pocket of time regularly
It's important to time your workout so you can keep the momentum. However, don't forget to let your body rest and rebuild. (Credit: Getty Images)
Whether you run, jog, walk or train at the gym, what's most important is that you exercise regularly.
Aim to include at least 30 minutes of aerobic activity in your workout a couple of times a week. If you're a beginner, start with 15 minutes of exercise and gradually work your way to 30 minutes, at least 2 days a week. On medication or live with a chronic health condition? Always speak with your doctor before starting a fitness regimen to find the best possible exercise for you.
To stay motivated and consistent, start simple. Pick something you enjoy, set some achievable goals, make a step-by-step plan and find an exercise buddy or fitness community to keep yourself accountable. These easy techniques can help boost your motivation to work out.
However, being consistent doesn't mean you have to exercise day in and day out. In fact, pushing yourself too hard might be counterproductive and hinder your progress or result in accidental injuries. Always factor in recovery time and rest days for your body to repair and restore itself after working out. Switch between low-impact cardio activities (like swimming, cycling and rowing) and high-impact exercises (like jogging, running and jumping rope). Alternating between low and high impact training not only gives your body time to strengthen itself, it also allows you to recover sufficiently without taking a full day off.
In short, taking a balanced approach will help you maximise your regimen, reap its full benefits and prevent injuries.
Push yourself harder but gradually
To burn more calories and build more muscles, change up your routine by stepping up the difficulty, pace and intensity. (Credit: Getty Images)
While you don't want to push yourself to the brink of exhaustion, you do want to work out hard enough to elevate your strength and endurance. To see gains in your fitness, challenge your cardiovascular system. This means your workouts should get your heart rate up and make you sweat.
This effort causes your heart and lungs to work harder, adjust to the new pressure and grow stronger.
Try to increase the difficulty of your workouts gradually, levelling up by about 10 to 20 per cent a week. This relates to the amount of time you spend, the distance you go and the intensity you aim for while working out. For instance, you can cycle for 20 minutes the first week and bring it to 25 minutes the following week. If you walk, you can pick up the pace slightly or walk up a hill to tackle the incline. If you jog, you can try to sprint for a few minutes or for as long as it feels "tough but doable."
While you don't have to push yourself throughout the whole workout, adding in short bursts of more intense exercise will greatly benefit your cardiovascular fitness.
Don't stick to the same fitness routine
You can switch up your exercise weekly to stimulate other body areas and keep you feeling excited. (Credit: Getty Images)
While cardio is considered the most important type of exercise for heart health, it's not the only workout that can bolster your cardiovascular system.
A well-rounded approach to fitness that combines different workouts – from endurance to strength work and flexibility – can challenge your body in a positive way. Variety keeps your body guessing, maximising your training and cardiovascular fitness. Besides, doing the same thing can lead to boredom, so staying disciplined gets harder and puts you at risk of repetitive stress injuries.
Aerobic exercise, resistance training or strength work and flexibility are great additions to any workout plan. While flexibility doesn't contribute directly to heart health, it provides a good foundation for other exercises, enabling you to perform better and more efficiently.
Add a couple of strength sessions a week or swap one for yoga, and remember to stretch, warm up and cool down before and after every workout.
While cardiovascular diseases – and heart disease, in particular – are the No. 1 cause of death worldwide, they are also one of the most preventable health conditions.
Research suggests that making just a few simple tweaks to your lifestyle can make a big difference. Looking after your heart and keeping your cardiovascular system in good shape is something you can work on every day. Watch your diet, quit smoking if you have developed the habit, engage in regular exercise and try to keep stress at bay.
Having critical illness protection can also ease your worries and financial burden when life takes unexpected turns. AIA Critical Illness Insurance plans cover a wide range of illnesses and are designed to help support you and your family financially while you deal with your diagnosis. This way, you can focus on your recovery without worrying too much about how the bills will be paid. Find the solution that best suits your needs or get in touch for a chat and tailored advice.
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NIH. National Library of Medicine. 2019. Changes in Physical Fitness After 12 Weeks of Structured Concurrent Exercise Training, High-Intensity Interval Training, or Whole-Body Electromyostimulation Training in Sedentary Middle-Aged Adults: A Randomized Controlled Trial. [online] [Accessed on 28 May 2022]
NIH. National Library of Medicine. 2021. Benefits outweigh the risks: a consensus statement on the risks of physical activity for people living with long-term conditions. [online] [Accessed on 28 May 2022]
NIH. National Library of Medicine. 2019. American College of Sports Medicine Roundtable Report on Physical Activity, Sedentary Behavior, and Cancer Prevention and Control. [online] [Accessed on 28 May 2022]
NIH. National Library of Medicine. 2020. Interventions for promoting physical activity in people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). [online] [Accessed on 28 May 2022]