The Science of Cardiovascular Fitness

The cardiovascular system is made up of two main components: our heart and our blood vessels. Blood is responsible for carrying oxygen and nutrients throughout our bodies, and the heart is responsible for that making it happen.

The purpose of cardiovascular exercise is to improve how efficiently the heart functions. With proper nutrition and training, we can help the heart pump a higher volume of blood through the body with fewer beats per minute. 

Aerobic/Cardiovascular Exercise

The heart is a muscular organ, so it can be weakened and strengthened throughout our lives. Although the heart can’t repair itself if damaged, there are things we can do to, excuse the pun, increase its heartiness.

Aerobic exercise increases the heart rate (beats per minute) and improves the circulation of blood throughout the body. During a vigorous workout, your rate of breathing is also increased for a prolonged period to bring oxygen to the muscles as they expel carbon dioxide. 

Consistently engaging in cardiovascular exercise can condition the heart to pump more efficiently, resulting in a slower resting heart rate. This allows the heart to work smarter, oxygenating blood with less effort. 

The Physiology of an Aerobic Workout

The normal resting heart rate of an adult is 60 to 100 beats per minute. Prior to exercise, this is the steady beat of the heart.

Even before someone starts their workout, their heart gets ready; knowing that physical activity is about to increase, the heart experiences an anticipatory increase in beats per minute.

For the duration of the cardiovascular exercise, a normal heart rate varies per person. While it’s always best to remain below 220 beats per minute, there’s a simple formula to determine the best intensity for your body:

220 - age in years = ideal maximum heart rate during aerobic exercise

This doesn’t mean you should exert this much effort for your entire workout; it’s a benchmark you can work toward during your fitness journey. Ty[ically, it’s recommended that we exercise with a target heart rate zone in mind. Your heart rate zone is 50 to 80 percent of your maximum heart rate.

Thankfully, we have watches and apps to help us monitor our heart rate regularly, and help us reach our BMP goals.

Benefits of Aerobic Exercise

  • Weight maintenance

  • Lower blood pressure

  • Increased stamina

  • Produces endorphins (“feel good” hormones)

Forms of Aerobic Exercise

  • Power walking

  • Jogging

  • Biking

  • Swimming

  • Rowing

  • Group fitness classes (HiGH Fitness, Zumba, Cardio Fuse, step class, etc…)

It’s beneficial to enjoy any form of cardiovascular exercise for 75 to 150 minutes every week. If aerobic workouts five days a week feels like too much, stick to three days per week with weight training mixed in.

Weight Training

It makes sense that with the heart being a muscle, lifting weights can improve its condition. 

Resistance or weight training can help reduce the amount of fat stored in our bodies. Also, proper weight lifting can make our muscles leaner and lower low-density lipoprotein (LDL), which is the “bad” cholesterol.

When you make your muscles work by lifting weights or engaging in resistance training, more blood is circulated to the muscles, and the adrenaline produced by your body can help your arterial muscles to dilate. Dilation increases the circumference of your arteries, making it easier for your heart to pump oxygenated blood through your body.

Research conducted by Iowa State University supports weight lifting as a means for reducing the risk of a heart attack. The data states that one hour of weight lifting every week can reduce the risk of heart attack by 40 to 70 percent.

Eat a Balanced Diet

When you eat, the process of digestion releases hormones into the bloodstream. Some of these hormones have positive effects on the body, while others have less desirable effects. 

Foods with Harmful Effects on the Heart

When not consumed in moderation, many foods can harm our bodies and affect our long-term health. Be mindful of the following in your diet:

  • Sodium

  • Saturated fat

  • Trans fat

  • Caffeine

  • Alcohol

  • Refined sugar

These components found in some of our food and drink can increase blood pressure, lead to the formation of blood clots, and increase the heart rate. Not everyone needs to cut out these substances entirely, but limiting intake is usually beneficial to all.

Heart-Healthy Foods

What should you be including in your daily diet? Here are some ideas.

  • Fresh produce

  • Fiber - Found in fruits, vegetables, beans, and whole grains.

  • Low-fat dairy products - such as yogurt, cheese, and cottage cheese.

  • Protein - From seafood, chicken, pork, or lean beef. Vegetarian options include beans, peas, nuts, seeds, and tofu.

  • Fat - Aim for unsaturated fats and food with zero trans fat. Good sources include seafood, nuts, and avocado.


Many people meditate to help them get into a better headspace. But did you know that meditation also benefits the heart?

One of the primary goals of meditation can be to help us avoid defaulting to a fight or flight response in stressful situations. We all know stress is harmful to our hearts, so meditation serves as a powerful tool to protect it.

Meditation can be practiced in a variety of ways, but the benefits are often the same- it reduces the production of cortisol, adrenaline, and norepinephrine in our bodies. These stress hormones can cause our heart rate and blood pressure to increase, which is helpful if we do have to flee from or fight our way out of a dangerous situation. However, if we’re producing these hormones during non-life-threatening circumstances, it’s putting unnecessary stress on the heart. 

Breathing techniques, repeating a mantra, or even just taking a walk in nature are types of meditation that can help us navigate our daily lives with a little less stress on the cardiovascular system. Teaching our bodies how to respond differently when we’re angry or afraid can improve the health of the heart.

It doesn’t have to take a lot of effort to care for the heart we have. If we can remember to fuel our bodies thoughtfully, and allow our bodies to move every day, we’re taking a step in the right direction.

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