The best way to strengthen your heart and lungs is through aerobic exercise, defined as any activity that engages large muscle groups in a sustained effort that raises your heart rate and increases your breathing, according to the Mayo Clinic.
"In a nutshell, the term aerobic means 'with oxygen,'" writes Mayo. "Aerobic exercise and activities are also called cardio, short for 'cardiovascular.'" Aerobic exercise brings many important health benefits.
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During aerobic exercise, your working muscles demand more oxygen, and this prompts your heart to work harder, get stronger and increase the volume of blood it can deliver to muscles. Your lungs, meanwhile, become more efficient in delivering oxygen to your blood and removing the carbon dioxide waste. The muscle that supports your lungs, the diaphragm, gets stronger too.
Read on to learn six steps to improved heart and lung strength.
Set Yourself Up for Success
If you've been living a sedentary lifestyle recently, choosing a form of exercise that you truly enjoy will go a long way toward getting you moving. Additionally, exercising with companions such as friends or pets will inspire you to complete workouts, or to work out harder and more regularly than you would have otherwise, according to Your Guide to Physical Activity and Your Heart, published by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI).
As described by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Women's Health, it is recommended that adults get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity each week. However, "any physical activity is better than no physical activity," they note. "[And] you need to be active for at least 10 minutes at a time to get health benefits."
Doing 150 minutes of aerobic activity each week "is great for improving lung function and health," says the United States Department of Veterans Affairs. "When you exercise, your lungs and heart are hard at work. Together, they bring oxygen into the body and deliver it to the muscles being used. This improves circulation and strengthens the tissue around your lungs, helping them function."
Calculate Your Aerobic Zone
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), you can estimate your maximum heart rate (MHR) by subtracting your age from 220. Your aerobic zone will be between 50 and 75 percent of that number. If you are 40 years old, for instance, your MHR should be around 180 beats per minute, and your aerobic zone is 90 to 135 beats per minute. When you are in this zone, your heart and lungs reap the most benefits.
Cardio and COVID-19
The CDC notes that heart and lung damage are two of the post-COVID health effects that people can experience after being infected with the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Aerobic exercise can help you recover from COVID-induced heart and lung damage, though the Cleveland Clinic recommends that you "ease back into fitness" by taking it slow and starting with walking or light jogging. The clinic also advises that you get the green light from your healthcare provider first.
Measure Your Heart Rate After Exercise
If your heart rate is still high two minutes after you stop exercising, it means your fitness level is not very high. However, as your heart and lungs become stronger, your recovery heart rate should drop considerably. A common recovery heart rate is 20 to 30 beats per minute slower than your workout heart rate. You can check your heart rate by placing the tips of your first two fingers over one of the two arteries in your neck to the left or right of your Adam's apple, or on your wrist just below the base of your thumb, explains the CDC.
Accelerate Your Efforts
As you get stronger, you can increase the strength of your heart and lungs by exercising at higher heart rates. Interval training (where you repeat short bouts of exercise at a heart rate above your aerobic zone) and tempo training (where you exercise for a sustained period at the upper end of your aerobic zone) can both help you accomplish this, as described by a study published in the September 1, 2021 issue of the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research.
During these sessions, the heart beats faster and your circulatory system eventually adapts by growing more capillaries to deliver oxygen to your muscles. Your resting pulse ultimately becomes slower, a sign that your heart and lungs are stronger than before.
Though the NHLBI points out that aerobic activity is the type of movement that is most beneficial for the heart, lifting weights and doing exercises like lunges, pushups and bicep curls will support your cardio efforts. According to the CDC, strength training done at least two days a week helps make the body leaner, and is important for cardiac health and aerobic capacity.
"To gain health benefits, you need to do muscle-strengthening activities to the point where it's hard for you to do another repetition without help," they note. "You can do activities that strengthen your muscles on the same or different days that you do aerobic activity — whatever works best for you."
Exercise every day for optimal health and wellness, and consider keeping a log of your exercise efforts to help you maintain your workout regimen. Regular aerobic exercise improves cardiovascular health and strength, which makes your heart beat more efficiently over time. "Aerobic exercise improves circulation, which results in lowered blood pressure and heart rate," explains Johns Hopkins Medicine. "It increases your overall aerobic fitness ... and it helps your cardiac output (how well your heart pumps)."
A strong heart can beat more slowly while at the same time pumping adequate amounts of blood into and out of the lungs and blood vessels, resulting in more effective transportation of oxygen and nutrients. This slower heartbeat helps prevent excess wear and tear on the heart muscle, leading to greater efficiency and long-term heart health.
Per the U.S. National Library of Medicine, aerobic activity also decreases the effects of aging on the lungs. "Do physical exercise to improve lung function," they advise. "Get up and move. Lying in bed or sitting for long periods allows mucus to collect in the lungs. This puts you at risk of lung infections."
Regular exercise literally extends your life. "Getting enough physical activity could prevent one in 10 premature deaths," says the CDC. "It could also prevent one in 15 cases of heart disease."
Consult your physician before beginning an exercise program. Your doctor can advise you on what precautions to take and how to best achieve your fitness goals.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Physical Activity"
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: "National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute — Your Guide to Physical Activity and Your Heart"
- Mayo Clinic: "Cardio 101 — Benefits and Tips"
- Centers for Disease Control: "Post-COVID Conditions"
- Cleveland Clinic: "Returning to Sports or Exercise After Recovering From COVID-19"
- National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute: "Your Guide to Physical Activity and Your Heart"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "How Much Physical Activity Do Adults Need?"
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: "Office on Women's Health — How to Be Active for Health"
- Centers for Disease Control: "Target Heart Rate and Estimated Maximum Heart Rate"
- U.S. National Library of Medicine: "Aging Changes in the Lungs"
- Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: "World-Class Long-Distance Running Performances Are Best Predicted by Volume of Easy Runs and Deliberate Practice of Short-Interval and Tempo Runs"
- United States Department of Veterans Affairs: "Exercise to Build Healthy Lungs"
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.