47 What are the Cardiovascular and Respiratory Systems?

Dawn Markell and Diane Peterson

Imagine for a moment climbing to the top of Mt. Everest, a challenging feat very few have accomplished. In the process, you gradually ascend from base camp, which sits at about 17,500 feet above sea level, to the peak at over 29,000 feet. At this elevation, the pressure of oxygen is so low, you struggle to take in a satisfying breath. Although you strive to breathe deeply, you are unable to get enough air. Your heart rate increases and you might even develop nausea and a headache. Unless your body has a chance to acclimate itself to higher elevations or you gain access to supplemental oxygen, your symptoms will persist or worsen.

These are the sensations many people with cardiovascular or respiratory illnesses, such as asthma, chronic bronchitis, or mild cardiovascular disease, experience on a daily basis. Climbing up a flight of steps may leave them gasping for air, as would walking briskly or even breathing in cold air. Regardless of the cause, being unable to take in sufficient air can create a sense of panic and cause serious physical discomfort.

From this simple example, hopefully, you feel an appreciation for the simple act of breathing and ensuing satisfaction that comes with each life-sustaining breath. For most people, unless they engage in strenuous physical activity sufficient to get them breathing hard, their cardiovascular (the heart, blood vessels, and blood) and respiratory system (lungs) operates efficiently enough to go relatively unnoticed. However, does that mean their cardiorespiratory (CR) system is functioning at optimal capacity? Or, could it be operating at a minimum level and experiencing problems that go undetected? This chapter defines cardiorespiratory fitness, examines the benefits of a healthy CR system, and explores how to effectively assess and improve the CR system.

How the CR System Works Together

The cardiorespiratory system operates to obtain and circulate vital compounds throughout the body—specifically, oxygen and nutrients, such as food energy, vitamins, and minerals. Both oxygen and nutrients, which are imperative for cellular energy production, must be taken in from the lungs and digestive system. Because the heart and lungs are so interlocked in this process, the two systems are often labeled together as the cardiorespiratory system. Without a healthy respiratory system, the body would struggle to bring in enough oxygen, release carbon dioxide (the chemical waste product of cellular metabolism) and eliminate unwanted particles that enter the respiratory tract when inhaling. Without a healthy heart, transporting oxygen from the lungs and nutrients from the digestive system to the body’s cells would be impossible. If the health of the CR system were compromised enough, survival would be impossible. Additionally, both must be healthy or the function of one or the other will be compromised.

Below are several videos explaining how the cardiovascular and respiratory systems operate and function together:

Dawn Markell & Diane Peterson, Health and Fitness for Life. MHCC Library Press. Sept 4, 2019. https://mhcc.pressbooks.pub/hpe295


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Introduction to Exercise Science for Fitness Professionals Copyright © 2021 by Dawn Markell and Diane Peterson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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