Rarely does one explore the world of physical fitness and exercise training without hearing the puzzling phrase “VO2 max.” Utilized by both professional athletes and casual competitors alike, VO2 max is believed to be one of the greatest indicators of an individual’s endurance.
But what exactly is it? And if elevated levels of it lead to a higher quality of life, how can we increase it? Here we break down everything you need to know about VO2 max, including how you can calculate it for yourself, what modifies it, and why it truly matters.
What Is VO2 Max?
The human body is composed of eleven complex and rather important systems, each one specifically designed to accomplish a different task.
The muscular system generates force that transforms into motion. The skeletal system acts as a framework to provide support, movement, and protection. And perhaps most importantly, the respiratory system fuels muscles with help from the circulatory system. These two work in tandem to pump oxygen-rich blood throughout the body, fueling all other systems in the process.
When we choose to exercise, the task of pumping oxygen-rich blood while removing carbon dioxide is referred to as cardiorespiratory endurance. It’s “the level at which your heart, lungs, and muscles work together when you’re exercising for an extended period of time.” And because cardiorespiratory endurance is determined by oxygen consumption, we refer to this commonly as VO2, or the maximum volume of oxygen that’s used by the body.
VO2 max, however, is a bit different from the standard VO2. Instead, it’s considered to be how fast your body can consume oxygen when you’re exerting yourself at your maximum rate, or your peak aerobic capacity. It’s measured in milliliters of oxygen used per minute per kilogram of body weight (mL/kg/min).
How Do You Calculate VO2 Max?
For professional endurance athletes like cyclists or skiers, calculating VO2 max requires sophisticated equipment and heavily monitored research environments. A standard test involves breathing oxygen via a mask while undergoing a treadmill test at a specific pace.
The pace grows more difficult as the fitness test progresses, and the participant must therefore consume a greater amount of oxygen to power the body’s muscles. Over the course of the study, the athlete’s highest VO2 max is determined, often when they’ve sustained their max heart rate for a brief period of time.
This testing can be expensive, however, and is, therefore, not suitable for everyone. As a result, physiologists have designed specific formulas that allow anyone to calculate their VO2 max at home. Doing so takes into account factors that include age, resting heart rate, and maximum heart rate. An alternative formula may look something like this:
VO2 max = 15.3 × (MHR ÷ RHR)
In this formula, MHR is your maximum heart rate, and RHR is your resting heart rate.
Though your VO2 max will be partially determined by your age and aerobic endurance, most individuals can expect their values to land within a certain range based on their age group.
For instance, sedentary men between the ages of 18-25 years can anticipate levels of 30-36 mL/kg/min. Women of the same age and physical ability can expect levels of 28-32 mL/kg/min. Meanwhile, an elite endurance athlete will often see higher VO2 max figures, often surpassing 60 mL/kg/min. But as has always been the case, this figure has a habit of declining steadily with age.
What Determines VO2 Max?
Age and heart rate are not the only factors that play a role in determining your VO2 max. Because aerobic activity is regulated by your heart’s ability to pump oxygen-rich blood to the body, the heart’s size and strength is a key component. The lungs, meanwhile, must be capable of consuming vast quantities of oxygen that diffuses into the bloodstream. A strong set of lungs will make aerobic exercise less demanding, and your VO2 max will increase as a result.
Truth be told, factors that range from cardiovascular fitness to personal training to your body’s innate ability to diffuse oxygen all play a role in governing the maximum amount of oxygen that one can consume. As a result, professional athletes are constantly pushing the limits of training to amplify their max level, utilizing exercise tests, training plans, and fitness trackers whenever possible.
Why Is VO2 Max Important?
So if VO2 max is a number that constantly shifts and changes based on a multitude of factors, why is it so important in the first place?
Simply put, VO2 max has long been considered the primary indicator of how good you’ll be at aerobic exercise, fitness, and overall physical performance. However, as science has advanced, so too has our understanding of the benefits that come from an increased VO2 max level.
Research continues to indicate that low aerobic fitness levels are connected to an increased risk of death from a litany of causes, though cardiovascular disease remains the largest threat. Therefore, higher aerobic fitness levels are associated with numerous health benefits, such as a longer lifespan, reduced risk of stroke, heart disease, diabetes, and cancer, plus improved mood, improved sleep patterns, and an overall better quality of life.
How to Increase Your VO2 Max
Perhaps the one question people most often ask after learning about VO2 max and its benefits is how they can increase it. The most effective method we utilize to accomplish this task is referred to as High Intensity Interval Training, or HIIT for short.
This form of training places an increased demand on maximal oxygen uptake as a means of producing a higher max level. Because HIIT workouts require the body to deliver a greater volume of oxygen due to increased demands from exercise, how much oxygen is consumed relates directly to what the body can achieve.
Common HIIT plans begin with a steady warm-up followed by intense bouts of cardio with a high demand placed on exercise intensity. These bouts of cardio may include intermittent sprints, hill climbs, and various other tasks that incorporate long intervals. When the workout is complete, a cool down often takes place to reduce lactic acid buildup in the muscle, which has long been known as the cause of muscle soreness. Individuals that utilize this form of training can expect their VO2 max score to increase steadily over time.
If HIIT workouts sound too daunting, however, regular exercise that increases heart rate and blood volume can be just as effective. The key is simply to maintain these bouts of exercise over long periods of time. But the more fit an individual becomes, the more difficult it becomes for them to increase their VO2 max.
Increasing VO2 Max for a Healthier Life
While VO2 max may seem like a figure used solely by professional endurance athletes, in reality, it serves us in many other ways. Used not only as a predictor of overall performance, it’s also an indicator of one’s overall health and can even be utilized as a tool to help predict health risks to come.
This seemingly simple number has changed the manner by which we assess one’s aerobic abilities as research continues to push our understanding of what maximal oxygen consumption truly means.
As with most exercise-related statistics, however, your VO2 max is only as important as the physical work you perform to increase it. Following general exercise guidelines or personalized exercise prescriptions will alter your max level over time, and in turn, lead to a better overall quality of life. As it turns out, VO2 max is far more than just another number.