If you have ever thought about not only living longer but living better then this article is for you.

In late 2016, the American Heart Association released a position statement in its journal, Circulation, calling for the routine assessment of cardiorespiratory fitness (CRF). It seems that the weight of the evidence has become overwhelming and fitness levels are now officially recognized as “a potentially stronger predictor of mortality than established risk factors such as smoking, hypertension, high cholesterol and type 2 diabetes mellitus ...” In short, it is now recognized by the largest nonprofit organization dedicated to fighting our biggest killers that exercise capacity is a more powerful predictor of mortality than the risk factors we typically screen for and treat.

What is cardiorespiratory fitness?

Cardio stands for the heart and blood vessels, and respiratory for the lungs and breathing muscles. In other words, fitness revolves around your body’s ability to take in oxygen, pump it to your working muscles and have them use it efficiently (extract it from the blood and use it to make energy). It is measured with a volume of oxygen (VO2) max test, and the greater your score, the less likely you are to be at risk for cardiovascular diseases. You will also be at reduced risk for dementia and Alzheimer’s, diabetes and several types of cancer as well, including lung, breast and gastrointestinal cancers. This is why the American Heart Association is now recommending you get your fitness level tested regularly and seek to increase your level to lower risks.

For example, one study in the Journal of the American Medical Association Oncology reported about half the risk of getting lung or colorectal cancer or dying of heart disease among men who attained a CRF level (or VO2 max) of 45 or better vs. 30 or less. In real world terms, that is the ability to run/walk about 1.5 miles in 12 minutes vs. only getting a little past a mile in the same time frame. Or, if running is not your thing, you could make a similar improvement of increasing your cycling distance from 2.5 miles in 12 minutes to 3.75 miles (females may need to scale these distances down by about 12%). Many different modalities could be used, including swimming, dancing, stair climbing, elliptical trainers or the like.

How do you increase CRF?

As you can see from the list above, endurance exercise that increases your heart rate and keeps it elevated for a time is best for increasing CRF. For this, we are talking about anything that gets your hips and legs moving continuously for at least 10-12 minutes, and 30-45 is usually better.

And if you feel like you get tired too easily you are in luck! The greatest leap in benefit of CRF is seen in people who move from the lowest fitness levels to the next higher level. So even 10 minutes of walking a day can increase CRF in the deconditioned.

However, if you are already in better shape, it takes greater intensities of effort to push your fitness levels even higher. CRF is more responsive to intensity than frequency or duration, so doing intervals at a speed that reaches your VO2 max is the fastest way to reach your potential. You will feel like you are really huffing and puffing!

Practically speaking, this means picking your favorite endurance exercise and moving at the fastest pace you could maintain for about eight minutes. To get a training benefit, though, you only need to sustain that pace in intervals of about 2-5 minutes. Adding a training day or two like that to your usual easier, longer exercise times works very well for building up your CRF.

Testing your CRF levels

To put out an official statement recommending all adults to estimate or measure CRF routinely, just like cholesterol or blood pressure, because of “mounting evidence” is some of the most important information to hit the exercise and fitness industry in many years.

To determine your CRF (or VO2 max) levels reliably, there is an online calculator you can use at www.ntnu.edu/cerg/vo2max or you can contact the Bradley Wellness Center fitness staff at (706) 278-WELL (just ask for Tom!) since we have several different tests we can use to get your score and monitor your progress over time. Whether you use the online calculator or give us a call, please act soon to discover your own CRF level. It is one of the best things you can do for your health.

Thomas Morrison is a fitness coordinator at the Bradley Wellness Center.

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