Everything to Know About VO₂ Max

By Staff 7 Min Read

VO₂ max refers to the maximum amount of oxygen your body can absorb and use during exercise. It measures your aerobic fitness levels.

If you’re looking to improve your aerobic fitness, you might consider maximizing your VO₂ max (sometimes called your oxygen uptake).

Read on to learn more about what VO₂ max is, how it’s measured, and how you can increase your VO₂ max.

VO₂ max is the maximum (max) rate (V) of oxygen (O₂) your body is able to use during exercise.

Oxygen is a critical ingredient in the respiratory process that’s involved in breathing. As you breathe in oxygen, your lungs absorb and turn it into energy called adenosine triphosphate (ATP).

ATP powers your cells and helps release the carbon dioxide (CO₂) that’s created during your respiratory process when you exhale.

The benefits are simple: The greater your VO₂ max, the more oxygen your body can consume, and the more effectively your body can use that oxygen to generate the maximum amount of ATP energy.

This means that your body can better handle aerobic fitness activities that require a lot of oxygen intake like running, swimming, and other types of cardio.

Who should improve their VO₂ max?

A high VO₂ max can be a good predictor of your athletic performance, especially if you’re a runner or a swimmer. Your VO₂ max amount can also act as a benchmark to track your progress as you improve your athletic abilities or if you’re trying to keep your VO₂ max at a certain level to maintain your performance.

But while oxygen uptake is more frequently used for athletes, is not just for athletes. It is a way to determine cardiorespiratory fitness in anyone. Medical professionals can use it to determine your heart and lung health.

Everyone — no matter their athletic ability — should try to increase their cardiorespiratory endurance. According to research, a higher VO₂ max is associated with a lower risk of death.

Typically, VO₂ max tests are conducted in a medical facility like a lab or hospital by a doctor, cardiologist, or fitness specialist.

Submaximal exercise tests

Some personal trainers and fitness instructors may also have certifications that allow them to conduct VO₂ max tests. These tests may be called “submaximal” because they are performed below (sub) max heart rate and below max exhaustion level, usually around 75%-85% max heart rate.

Submaximal exercise tests are still a useful way to measure your VO₂ max levels and your overall levels of heart and lung endurance during exercise.

The type of VO₂ max test that’s best for you depends on your fitness level. Your doctor or instructor may have you do one of the following tests if you exercise regularly or are a trained athlete:

You may do a simple walk/run test on a treadmill if you’re newer to exercise or have not exercised for some time. Other possible VO₂ max tests include:

VO₂ max depends on a few key factors:

  • age
  • gender
  • fitness level
  • elevation, such as at sea level or in the mountains

Some of these factors, like age and sex, are uncontrollable. But the majority of your oxygen uptake depends on your fitness level, which can be managed.

Here are some averages based on sex and age that you can use for reference.

Typical VO₂ max for people born male measured in mL/kg/min:

Typical VO₂ max for people born female measured in mL/kg/min:

As you get older, your VO₂ max typically declines.

There’s plenty you can do to keep your VO₂ max levels at their highest for your age and desired fitness levels. A 2016 study found that even occasional intense workouts can help improve VO₂ max levels.

Here are some suggestions:

  • Perform high intensity interval training (HIIT): This consists of doing several minutes of intense aerobic exercises, like cycling on a stationary bike, reducing the intensity for a few minutes, and increasing the intensity again.
  • Switch up aerobic activities in a single workout: Start with cycling, then swimming, then running, and so on. Rest in between each activity.
  • Perform any cardio activity: While intensity is what improves VO₂ max levels the most, any cardio exercise that is not a stroll should improve cardiorespitory fitness and VO₂ max in sedentary people.

Based on research into the benefits of VO₂ max, the answer to this question seems pretty simple: It’ll help you live longer.

No joke: A 2018 study in Frontiers in Biosciencefound that increasing your VO₂ max can improve the delivery and use of oxygen by your body, maintaining your health and physical fitness well into your later years.

There are other daily benefits that you may start to notice within days or weeks of starting to improve your VO₂ max, such as:

  • being less exhausted or winded doing activities like climbing stairs
  • reducing your stress levels
  • boosting your immune system and getting sick less often

VO₂ max is a good benchmark for measuring your aerobic fitness levels because it literally tells you how well your body is using oxygen.

If you’re an athlete who loves cardio, then VO₂ max should be one of your calling cards for assessing your fitness and measuring your progress over time if you’re trying to improve your performance.

Even if you’re not an athlete, consider going to your local gym or doctor and asking for a submaximal exercise test.

VO₂ max is a strong predictor of your cardiovascular health as you age. It’s worth tracking to find and maintain a good or higher VO₂ max score to help you stay healthy throughout your life.

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