Having an active lifestyle is associated with many benefits, including higher levels of cardiorespiratory fitness, also known as VO₂ max or maximal oxygen consumption. Measuring VO₂ max is considered the best indicator of human performance, including cardiovascular fitness, and aerobic endurance and has been shown to be a strong and independent predictor of mortality. Improvements in fitness, even modest ones, can increase VO₂ max and have substantial health benefits. But what exactly is VO₂ max?
What is VO₂ Max?
VO₂ max, also sometimes called oxygen uptake, is the maximum amount of oxygen your body can absorb and use during exercise. Oxygen is essential in the breathing and respiratory process: when breathing in oxygen, your lungs absorb and turn it into energy. This energy, called adenosine triphosphate (ATP) powers your cells and helps release carbon dioxide (CO₂) which is created when you exhale.
When you increase your VO₂ max during exercise, your body can consume more oxygen and use it more efficiently to produce the maximum amount of ATP energy. In short: the greater your VO₂ max, the better your body can handle aerobic fitness activities that require a lot of oxygen intake like running, swimming, and other types of cardio.
Measuring VO₂ Max
When measuring VO₂ max, results depend on age, gender, fitness level, and elevation. VO₂ max can be measured in a medical lab or in a hospital by a cardiologist, or fitness specialist. Some personal trainers and fitness instructors are also certified to conduct tests; these tests are called ‘submaximal’. While they provide info on overall levels of heart and lung endurance during exercise, they won’t be as detailed as VO₂ max tests done in a lab or by a cardiologist.
Benefits of Increasing Your VO₂ Max
According to the study Survival of the fittest: VO₂ max, a key predictor of longevity?, increasing VO₂ max can help you live longer. By increasing maximal oxygen consumption, you improve the delivery and use of oxygen by your body which helps you maintain good health and fitness even while you age. Improved physical fitness also helps reduce stress, ease daily activities like climbing stairs, and boosts the immune system, meaning you get sick less often.
While VO₂ max declines as we age there are measures you can take to maximize its levels for your age and desired fitness level. According to studies, intense workouts, including several minutes of intense aerobic exercises like biking or running followed by reducing the intensity for a few minutes and then increasing it again can help improve VO₂ max levels. These workouts are known as High-intensity Interval Training or HIIT. Switching up aerobic activities during a workout is also helpful: start with cycling, then switch to running, and end with swimming.
Maximal oxygen consumption can act as a benchmark to track your progress as you improve your athletic abilities or to ensure you maintain a certain level of fitness. Because VO₂ max is a good indicator of your overall quality of life, it is worth keeping track of it and working towards maintaining a high VO₂ max to stay healthy even as you age.