If taking care of your health and athletic ability is high on your priority list, you’re probably keen to know how to improve cardio fitness.
Cardio fitness, in short, refers to the efficiency with which your heart, lungs, and other organs use and transport oxygen during your workout. “Cardio fitness is like the superhero of heart health and endurance,” says Jo Meyer, personal trainer and director at Nordic Balance.
She’s not wrong – research shows that doing cardio exercise (specifically, running) for as little as five to ten minutes a day at a slow pace can dramatically reduce your risk of death from all causes, including cardiovascular disease.
That said- we’re not all running enthusiasts (and that’s A-OK). So, below, Meyer explains the five simplest ways to improve cardio fitness if, like me, you don't love the idea of taking to a treadmill. Don't miss our guides to the best cardio workouts and TikTok's latest workout trend, cosy cardio, while you're here.
How to improve cardio fitness
What are the benefits of improving your cardio fitness?
“The best thing about cardio is that it helps to improve your heart's strength and efficiency,” says Meyer. Improving your cardio fitness, she says, is like giving a power-up to your whole body. “It's incredible, because when you work on your cardio, you're making your heart stronger and more efficient at pumping blood. This means better circulation and lower blood pressure.”
A study by American Heart Association last year found that people who do 150 to 300 minutes per week of moderate physical activity (that's between 2.5 and 5 hours, FYI) have a 20 to 21% lower risk of death from all causes. Those who do 75 to 150 minutes of vigorous activity per week (an hour and 15 to two hours) experience a 19% lower risk of mortality from all causes.
The benefits don’t end there. “Regular cardio exercise releases endorphins, the natural feel-good chemicals in your brain, making you feel happier and more relaxed,” says Meyer, who also notes that cardio can improve your stamina, too.
“It's also great for your immune system, helping you fend off colds and other bugs,” Meyer adds. “So, by improving your cardio fitness, you're not just working on your physique, but making a huge investment in your overall health and well-being.” Sounds good to us...
How to improve cardio fitness
To improve your cardio fitness - surprise, surprise - you have to engage in cardio exercise, like running, cycling, walking, or swimming. “When you do cardio exercises, your heart starts to beat faster,” Meyer explains. This, she says, is your heart working hard to pump more blood, and hence oxygen, to those active muscles.
“As you stick with your cardio routine, something cool happens: your heart becomes stronger and more efficient at pumping blood,” Meyer says. “It's like upgrading from a basic pump to a high-performance one. This means your heart doesn't have to work as hard all the time, which is great for your overall heart health.”
Then, there are your lungs. “As you push through your cardio workouts, your lungs improve at taking in oxygen and getting rid of carbon dioxide.” In turn, your muscles also get better at using that oxygen.
In a nutshell, Meyer says, improving cardio fitness is about training your heart, lungs, and muscles to work more efficiently. “This doesn't happen overnight, but with regular cardio workouts, you'll start feeling the difference – more energy, less huffing and puffing, and overall, just a stronger, healthier you.”
5 simple PT-recommended ways to improve your cardio fitness
1. Brisk walking
The benefits of walking are well known and Meyer reckons that it's the most accessible way to up your fitness, whatever your current fitness level. "This is such an easy way to start," says Meyer.
"Put on your shoes and go for a walk at a pace that's faster than usual. It's great because it gets your heart rate up without putting too much stress on your body." Plus, you can do it anywhere.
Riding a bike, whether it's outdoors or on a stationary bike, is great for cardio fitness, according to Meyer.
"It's low-impact, which means it's easier on your joints than running, but it still gives your heart a great workout," she adds.
If you're not a keen cyclist, trying a spin class or investing in a stationary indoor bike is a good place to start. One of the best fitness apps out there is Zwift, a simple-to-use app that guides you through at-home cycling workouts. That way, you can enjoy all the benefits without worrying about road safety.
"This is like a total-body workout and cardio session," Meyer says. "Swimming is super effective for cardio fitness because it makes your body work hard to move through the water, but it's also gentle on your body."
Skipping, Meyer says, is a powerhouse cardio exercise (something I can attest to since I completed my recent skipping challenge).
"It increases your heart rate quickly, and you can do it almost anywhere. Plus, it's fantastic for coordination and timing," Meyer explains. Workouts on a mini trampoline will have a similar effect and promise to be seriously fun.
Last but by no means least - "yes, really," Meyer enthuses. "Put on some music and just let loose," she advises.
Why? Well, "dancing is not only fun but also a great way to improve your cardio fitness. It's like sneaky exercise because you're getting a workout without even realising it."
Think about it - dancing not only gets your heart rate up but promises to boost your mood and mental health, too. There's a reason search for dancing for happiness is on the rise...
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How can I increase my cardio fitness rate?
Ultimately, you can improve your cardio fitness by doing any workout that raises your heart rate – whether a 45-minute cycle or a 15-minute HIIT workout.
What matters, is selecting exercise styles and intensities that suit your current level or fitness, and staying consistent. "Choosing something you find enjoyable will make it easier to stick to a routine," personal trainer Jo Meyer adds.
What is the fastest way to improve cardio?
In short, by carving out a workout routine that you genuinely enjoy and will stick to. Case in point: as this American Heart Association research highlights, participants who opt for 150 to 300 minutes of moderate physical activity a week (between 2.5 and 5 hours) have a 20 to 21% lower risk of death from all causes.
Similarly, those who have less time on their hands but bank 75 to 150 minutes of vigorous activity (an hour and 15 to two hours) experience a 19% lower risk of mortality from all causes.
If you genuinely enjoy your cardio workout, you're more likely to do it more regularly, in turn improving your fitness quickly. PT Meyer's go-to workout recommendations span walking, cycling, swimming, skipping and dancing.
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Abbi Henderson is a freelance journalist and social media editor who covers health, fitness, women’s sport and lifestyle for titles including Women's Health and Stylist, among others.
With a desire to help make healthcare, exercise and sport more accessible to women, she writes about everything from the realities of seeking medical support as a woman to those of being a female athlete fighting for equality.
When she’s not working, she’s drinking tea, going on seaside walks, lifting weights, watching football, and probably cooking something pasta-based.
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