It’s impossible to talk about exercise without discussing cardio. You know it’s an important part of fitness and has health benefits, but you might not have given much thought to the term cardiovascular endurance. That is, until you realize—whether when heading out on a run for the first time in a while, doing your first Peloton ride, or climbing an extra-long set of stairs—that your heart is pounding and you’re more winded than you’d like to be.
But cardiovascular endurance training is just for athletes, right? Nope! Building cardiovascular endurance is essential for everyone, and it can change your life in some pretty big ways.
“While it's an admirable goal to run a marathon or complete an Ironman, most of us are simply training to feel more confident moving through our daily lives—whether that means keeping up with the kids, mowing the lawn or making it up and down the subway steps,” says Peloton instructor Denis Morton. “Not only can a little movement go a long way toward improving those activities of daily life, but the unseen side effects can also be inspiring.”
And believe it or not, building cardiovascular endurance is a lot easier than you might think. Here’s what you need to know about this exercise essential and how you can improve yours right now.
What is Cardiovascular Endurance?
Put simply, cardiovascular endurance is your ability to do a repetitive physical activity for an extended period of time without getting fatigued. It’s a reflection of how well your heart pumps oxygenated blood through your body and makes it available to your muscles. As you continue to exert yourself, the moment of truth comes when you’re sucking in more oxygen and your heart rate increases: Do you get winded and does your body get so tired that you need to stop, or can you keep going? It depends on your cardiovascular endurance.
Physiologists discuss this type of stamina in terms of maximum oxygen consumption, or VO2 max. VO2 max is the amount of oxygen you use during exercise. “We test for VO2 max by increasing the incline on the treadmill or the resistance on a stationary bicycle to a higher and higher level till the person can no longer continue to exercise,” says Arlette Perry, PhD, director of the Laboratory of Clinical and Applied Physiology at the University of Miami and founder of the THINK program for kids. “When they start to fall to the back of the treadmill or fail to keep up the pace on the bicycle, we can determine their VO2 max.” The longer a person can keep going, the stronger their cardiovascular endurance.
Why is Cardiovascular Endurance Important?
There are so many ways to answer this question because there are so many benefits of cardiovascular endurance. As you’ll see, it gives you a lot of bang for your buck!
Improving Heart Health
Of course, your heart health is a biggie, so let’s start there. “Cardiovascular exercise can reduce risk for heart disease—America's number one risk factor,” says Denis. And the better your cardiovascular endurance is, the longer and more effectively you’ll be able to exercise.
One 29-year study published in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology in 2023 found that better cardiorespiratory fitness reduced the risk of death from heart disease in people with high blood pressure. Other recent studies indicate that the intensity of the physical activity makes a difference for those with and without heart-related issues. In fact, more frequent and higher-intensity exercise can lower mortality risks by up to 31 percent, according to a 2022 review of data in the American Heart Association’s journal, Circulation.
People with high cardiovascular fitness also have better cholesterol levels, as well as lower blood sugar, with less incidence of type 2 diabetes.
Boosting Your Immune System
Denis also highlights the importance of cardio to keep sickness at bay. According to a 2019 review of studies in the Journal of Sport and Health Science, moderate to vigorous exercise can help your immune system fight off various illnesses by reducing inflammation and triggering immune cells that find and eradicate viruses. Another study found that increased cardio could reduce the number of upper-respiratory infections by more than 40 percent.
Getting a Better Night’s Sleep
Recent research published in Mayo Clinic Proceedings showed that people with good cardiorespiratory fitness are less likely to need sleeping pills. To reap this particular benefit, you need a “moderate or vigorous intensity of physical activity,” at 70 to 80 percent of your maximum heart rate for 75 minutes per week.
Doing All the Things You Really Want to Do
Maybe you want to try that 60-minute Peloton ride, you’re preparing for an epic hiking trip, you want to join a pick-up soccer league, or you have your heart set on running a 5K and maybe even working your way up to a half-marathon. You need to build your cardiovascular endurance to achieve those goals.
Or maybe your goals are a little less lofty from an athletic perspective. Cardiovascular endurance can help you dance the day away at a music festival, spend the day exploring a new city on foot, or chase your dog around the yard. Not to mention, it becomes even more important the older we get. “As we age, our overall conditioning declines unless we work to improve and maintain it,” explains Michael Urban, OTD, director of the Doctorate of Occupational Therapy Program at the University of New Haven. “The list is long for benefits associated with improved cardiovascular endurance, but decreasing your risk of diseases and falls while improving your overall quality of life [are arguably] the most important.”
Improving Mental Health
Those lifestyle changes create a cascade of positive effects, too. Numerous studies have linked increased cardiovascular fitness to lower levels of depression and anxiety, but you may not need a study to prove this point. “People feel better after exercise, their body composition is improved and their self-confidence is better,” says Perry. “This tremendously affects their mental outlook. If a person can walk up three flights of steps without huffing and puffing, they feel better about themselves.”
Examples of Activities that Build Cardiovascular Endurance
There’s a wide range of activities that ultimately lead to increased cardiovascular endurance—and some of them aren’t what you might think. “We often think of elite athletes performing wondrous feats, but it can be as simple as taking a walk,” says Denis. “Anything that elevates your heart rate can build cardiovascular endurance.”
With that in mind, here are a few activities that can work some serious magic:
Boxing and kickboxing
Sports like basketball and soccer
In case you were wondering, “cross-country skiers, followed by marathon runners and Tour de France cyclists, have the highest maximum oxygen consumption values in the world,” says Perry.
How to Improve Cardiovascular Endurance
When attempting to build your cardiovascular fitness, it’s a good idea to figure out your target heart rate. For this, you need to do a little math—just a little, we promise! You can determine your maximum heart rate, says Urban, by subtracting your current age from 220. Multiply that number by 64 percent and 76 percent to get your overall range for moderate-intensity physical activity. “You can then work to improve your heart rate to be toward the lower end of the range,” he explains—all while sticking to the same intensity or pace as you normally would.
A watch or heart-rate monitor can give you a precise reading while exercising, or you can do “the talk test” to get an idea of how hard you’re exercising. “If it’s difficult for you to talk to your friend during exercise, it’s fairly intense,” Perry says. As you build cardiovascular endurance, you’ll find that the bar for the talk test changes.
Generally speaking, how long should you stay at an intensity level before taking things up a notch? Perry says it can be as little as two weeks or as long as eight weeks. “Much of it depends on the level you start out at,” she explains. “Those who start out lower to begin with tend to improve more quickly, and those who start out fairly high take more time. Genetics is also a factor.”
When it’s time, Perry suggests increasing your training heart rate by 5 percent or by doing your chosen activity 5 percent faster or longer. “I typically teach individuals to vary the intensity at which they are working first and then go to either volume or frequency (times per week they are working),” she says. “But there are many variables, which is why I recommend having an exercise physiologist or experienced trainer work with you on those decisions [if possible].”
Here are some specific ways to build your cardiovascular endurance and stamina.
“Consistency is more important than intensity,” says Denis. “Cycling, rowing, bodyweight workouts or walking—even at manageable intensities—are all effective ways to improve cardiovascular health.”
If you’re just starting out with building your cardiovascular endurance, try 20 to 30 minutes three to four times per week, recommends Denis. Keep the intensity low while you gradually build up your stamina, and then start elevating the intensity, per Perry’s suggestions above. The pitfall to avoid is starting too hard and then burning out (or injuring yourself).
If you have a Peloton Bike, Power Zone training is a great way to build up your endurance and measure your progress. “During Power Zone training on the Peloton Bike, Zone 2 (out of 7) is relatively low-intensity work used to build endurance, but that endurance builds the foundation for all the strength and power that comes later,” says Denis.
Sprint interval training (SIT)
Slow and steady may win the race, but there’s a place for sprinting, too. In fact, studies have shown that incorporating sprint intervals into your training can work wonders for your cardiovascular endurance. One study published in PLoS One showed that subjects who tried this reported a 19 percent increase in cardiorespiratory fitness after 12 weeks. Even just one minute per exercise session of this type of super-high-intensity activity can boost your overall endurance. (If you’re using the Peloton App or a Peloton Tread, be sure to filter for Interval Runs.)
Mixing up the intensity of your workouts can be the boost you need to catapult you to the next level of cardiovascular endurance and help improve your running speed.
One caveat: Because SIT requires maximum energy expenditure for those sprints, these types of intense sessions may be better suited to people who have more experience with exercise.
High intensity interval training (HIIT)
Not quite at the endurance level you need to be for SIT? Don’t worry—there’s HIIT. This type of interval training, which switches between higher and lower intensities, allows you to cut down on workout time without sacrificing results, helping you work smarter, not harder. In fact, a 2021 review of studies published in the Journal of Physiology found that low-volume HIIT, which can be done in as little as 15 minutes, enlarged the chambers of the heart, making it pump blood more efficiently throughout the body. You can add Peloton’s HIIT cycling, running, or floor classes to your routine to mix things up.
Walking and Running
When in doubt, go back to the basics. “People often state they do not have time to improve their overall cardiovascular health,” Urban says, “but you can simply walk at a normal to slight increased pace two to three times a day for 20 to 30 minutes to improve.” Perry says having a dog can help you achieve these goals; plus, studies have shown that dog owners live longer, which may tie into these inherent exercise benefits.
If you want more of a workout, go for a run once a day, a few times a week. Follow Perry’s 5 percent suggestion when your run no longer seems difficult consistently.
How Can You Measure Your Cardiovascular Endurance?
Remember that heart rate math you did earlier? You can use that number to gauge how you’re doing. If you stay at the same intensity level of exercise as your cardiovascular endurance improves, your heart rate will move toward the lower end of your age-specific range. Of course, it will change again once you increase intensity or duration.
A less scientific way to tell if your cardiovascular fitness is improving? See how you feel. If you’re able to exercise harder and longer, you’re improving. “So, on the treadmill, you may tolerate a faster speed, increase in incline, and longer duration before reaching fatigue,” says Urban. “When your endurance is optimal, your stamina to engage in meaningful daily tasks will also become easier and more enjoyable.”
In it for the Long Haul
Whether you’re just getting started or you’re a pro, even a little bit of cardio can help improve your endurance. And when you hit a plateau or just start feeling frustrated, take it down a notch.
“Remember that consistency is more important than intensity—back down that resistance and keep showing up for yourself,” says Denis. “We don't have to do it alone, and we don’t have to grind ourselves down to receive the benefits. There's a whole community of support here rooting for each other, and every step counts."