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What is Cardiopulmonary Exercise?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 17, 2024
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Cardiopulmonary exercise can have several potential definitions. One of these is that it is exercise that fully works the heart and lungs. Alternately, people can mean cardiopulmonary exercise testing when using this term, which is a way to measure heart and lung fitness.

In the first definition, cardiopulmonary exercise is often called by other names, such as cardiovascular exercise, aerobic exercise, or simply cardio. The goal of any aerobic exercise is to elevate the heart rate to a certain target rate, and keep it there for a set period of time. When a person is healthy, the heart beats faster and breathing is often at a quicker pace during exercise. In addition to the muscles being worked, heart and lungs are worked too, presumably resulting in greater fitness of these organs.

Many different types of exercise are cardiopulmonary exercise, placing demands for greater efficiency on the heart and lungs. People can jog, row, swim, or use step or cross country machines. Some folks enjoy quick walking, aerobic dance, or running. For healthy people, it’s usually recommended they incorporate three to four days a week of cardio into their exercise routines.

If there are problems with heart or lung function, attempting cardiopulmonary exercise can range from being difficult to highly dangerous. Should doctors believe there may be problems in either of these areas, they may ask a person to undergo exercise testing. Some forms of exercise testing don’t really assess lung function, leaving the pulmonary aspect out of the equation. Others look at heart and lung function together, to determine if one or both have problems.

Cardiopulmonary exercise testing is similar to other forms of stress testing but people wear an oxygen mask in addition to being monitored with an electrocardiogram (EKG). Sometimes other monitoring like echocardiogram is included in tests. The specialized mask can measure breath and gas exchange, giving readings that clearly show if lung function is made poorer by exercise. This might lead to a variety of diagnoses, including presence of cancer, damage from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or exercise induced asthma. What is particularly useful about this testing is its ability to discriminate between heart or lung problems that occur as exercise levels increase.

This form of testing is not just to diagnose disease conditions. Sometimes it is used to determine fitness levels of competitive athletes. Alternately, people who haven’t exercised in a while may opt to undergo cardiopulmonary exercise testing so they can get recommendations on the level of exercise they should practice as they pursue fitness goals.

In either definition, the heart lung connection will always be important. The heart and lungs are interdependent with heart supplying blood to the lungs and receiving it back in oxygenated form to send to the body. Cardiopulmonary fitness means this system works well, and that tends to translate to bodies that can do more and exert more energy.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen , Writer
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseGeek contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.

Discussion Comments

By Heavanet — On Jun 27, 2014

Many communities have exercise trails that are great places for people to walk, run, or rid their bicycles. Unlike going to a gym, these trails get people into the outdoors, which is a big motivator for many. I recommend exercising the cardiovascular system on one of these trails, especially for people who love being outside.

By Ocelot60 — On Jun 26, 2014

I like to combine brisk walking, swimming, and the use of a rowing machine for my cardio workout. Sometimes doing just one type of exercise gets boring. Incorporating several into your workout regimen will keep it interesting, and make your more motivated to do your routine several times each week.

Tricia Christensen

Tricia Christensen


With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseGeek contributor, Tricia...
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