What Is Cardiorespiratory Endurance and How Can You Improve It?

Along with greater strength and more defined muscles, a fitness goal worth striving for is greater cardiorespiratory endurance. Maybe you know it simply as “endurance.” Either way, it’s a skill that can improve your performance in just about any athletic endeavor, allowing you to exercise harder and longer — and reach your goals faster.

If you can barely run a mile without keeling over, though, don’t stress. As with any other fitness skill — like building strength, enhancing explosive power, becoming more flexible — you can improve your cardiorespiratory endurance with the right cardio activities and workout regimen. Here’s a look at how you can do that, and what exactly this term means.

What Is Cardiorespiratory Endurance?

“Cardiorespiratory endurance is the ability of your heart, blood vessels, and lungs to deliver oxygen to working muscles,” says Trevor Thieme, C.S.C.S., Openfit’s senior manager of fitness and nutrition content. The more efficient and effective your body becomes at doing that, the longer you can sustain vigorous physical activity, and the fitter you’ll become.

Cardiorespiratory vs. Cardiovascular Endurance

These two terms are often used interchangeably, and while they both relate to how long and how hard you can perform physical activity, they are slightly different.

Cardiorespiratory endurance involves the heart, blood vessels, and lungs, while cardiovascular endurance just includes the heart and blood vessels, says William P. Kelley, C.S.C.S., ATC.

“Cardiovascular endurance is related to the cardiorespiratory function, as blood is what carries the oxygen,” he explains. “But it’s more about the cardiac muscles’ ability to fire repeatedly and forcefully.” The cardiorespiratory system, on the other hand, also encompasses the gas exchange that occurs between the heart and lungs, Kelley says.

If you need a trick to remember the difference between the two, break down the words. Vascular refers to vessels — in this case, blood vessels — and respiratory refers to the respiration system — aka your lungs.

Why Is Cardiorespiratory Endurance Important?

Increasing your endurance is key to improving your overall fitness. “The greater your cardiorespiratory endurance, the longer and harder you can push yourself during a workout or athletic event,” Thieme says. This helps with traditional cardio activities — like running a 10K or cycling — allowing you to go farther, faster.

But it also gives you an edge in other types of workouts. “If you’re doing HIIT, for example, it means being able to sustain a higher exercise intensity before fatigue starts taking a toll on performance,” he says.

Good cardiorespiratory and cardiovascular endurance is also helpful with certain kinds of strength workouts, like circuit training, where stamina is important. “All in all, it translates into greater exercise capacity,” says Thieme. “And the greater your exercise capacity, the more calories you’ll burn and the more fat you’ll shed.”

And beyond enhanced fitness and a slimmer physique, greater cardiorespiratory endurance can also lead to a stronger, healthier heart, which Thieme says is “hugely important for longevity and quality of life.”

What Is the Best Way to Improve Cardiovascular Endurance?

If you want to challenge your cardiorespiratory and cardiovascular endurance, start by engaging in aerobic activity. That includes any exercise or workout that relies on the respiratory (lungs) and circulatory (heart) systems to deliver oxygen to your working muscles for energy production. Think: distance running and interval training, not weightlifting.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends the following as the minimum amount of exercise for adults: two strength-training workouts and either 2.5 hours of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise (steady-state exercise, like distance running) or 1 hour and 15 minutes of high-intensity aerobic exercise (interval training, like HIIT) per week.

If you’re just beginning your fitness journey, stick to moderate-intensity cardio. But if you’ve already built a strong fitness foundation and have limited time to exercise, your cardio workouts should emphasize interval training.

Either way, “both steady-state exercise and interval training have been shown to lead to similar increases in cardiorespiratory endurance,” Thieme says.

What Are Some Cardiorespiratory Exercises?

Distance running and cycling are the classic examples of cardiorespiratory exercises. Other good cardio exercises and activities include swimming, dancing, stair climbing, plyometrics, jumping rope, calisthenics, and any sport that involves repeated bouts of intense activity, such as soccer, basketball, tennis, and lacrosse. There’s also HIIT, aka high intensity interval training.

“Regardless of whether you decide to take after the tortoise or the hare, the key is to pick an activity that you enjoy doing — after all, no matter what your goal is, consistency is what will get you across the finish line.”