Have you been keeping an eye on your Cardio Fitness Score? It’s not just for über-fit athletes. Quite the opposite, actually: Mounting evidence shows that people with low cardiorespiratory fitness are at a greater risk of dying from heart disease, according to the American Heart Association (AHA). In other words, it’s the least fit who should be trying to improve their score the most.
High-intensity exercise is touted as the most efficient way to boost fitness levels, but those types of workouts aren’t always realistic for people who rarely exercise. So researchers analyzed multiple studies on the effects of lower-intensity exercise and uncovered some good news.
First, moderate-intensity exercise (not just high-intensity exercise) can also improve cardio fitness levels among the unfit.
Second, people with the lowest levels of cardio fitness stand to reap the biggest rewards: More than half of the reduction in all-cause and cardiovascular disease mortality takes place when you move from the least-fit group to the next least-fit group.
That means a person who goes from being sedentary to active will experience a greater reduction in their risk of dying from heart disease than someone who’s already fit and gets a little bit fitter.
You don’t have to do crazy amounts of exercise to get these results, either. After analyzing walking-intervention studies, the AHA concluded that sedentary individuals who begin following current exercise guidelines—150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise, like brisk walking, a week—can boost their cardio fitness by 10 percent.
And that’s not all. In one meta-analysis, the brisk walkers also reduced their body weight 1.4 percent, their body fat 1.9 percent, and their systolic and diastolic blood pressure a total of 2.8 percent—all without changing their diet.
These results are “modest but meaningful,” say UK study authors and are “likely to result in greater ease of performance of everyday physical activities and improved quality of life.”
4 Heart-Friendly Walking Rules
Ready to get started? Now that you know all the reasons why walking for exercise is so important, it’s time to put that research into practice. Here’s how:
- Aim to briskly walk about 150 minutes a week. That translates to about 30 minutes a day, five days a week.
- You can do these walks in one continuous session or in multiple sessions throughout the day.
- During these walks, your average heart rate should be 50 to 70 percent of your max heart rate, or in your Fitbit tracker’s fat burn heart rate zone.
- If your overall volume of exercise consistently falls below 150 minutes a week, you’ll need to do those walks at a slightly higher intensity to see results: 70 to 85 percent of your max, or in your Fitbit tracker’s cardio zone.
When these workouts get too easy, ease into intervals—intense exercise is still the best way for fit individuals to keep improving their cardio fitness score.