If you’re someone who is trying to improve your physical fitness, you’ve likely heard the term VO2 max thrown around—but you may have found yourself scratching your head wondering what exactly the term means. Just like other markers of fitness, VO2 max is something worth paying attention to, as it can help you take your workouts to the next level.
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Put simply, VO2 max is the highest volume of oxygen that your body can utilize during exercise. But, that definition alone isn’t enough for you to put VO2 max to practical use. That’s why we’ve consulted with a few trainers to help break down exactly what VO2 max is and why it matters when it comes to your fitness.
What is VO2 max?
As mentioned above, VO2 max is your body’s maximum consumption of oxygen. “It is the maximum capacity of the body to take in, transport, and use oxygen during exercise, and [it] reflects a person’s cardiorespiratory fitness,” says Personal Trainer Becky Behling.
Your heart, lungs, and muscles work together as a team, and VO2 max is a measure of how efficiently your body can carry out the work your organs have to do together. “Your lungs allow for inhalation, absorbing the oxygen from the air, where it is carried by the blood, through the heart and delivered to the muscles (in a nutshell),” says Personal Trainer Lesley Bell, BS, NASM-CPT, NASM-CES, NCSF-CSC.
How does Vo2 max measure your fitness?
VO2 max is worth paying attention to because the more oxygen your body consumes, the more energy you can produce by contracting your muscles, either more rapidly or with more force—or a combination of both. “That ultimately means that you can move quicker and more efficiently, and is a general indicator of aerobic fitness,” says Personal Trainer Heather L. Tyler, NSCA-CPT.
Why does it matter?
Most importantly, VO2 max tells you your body’s limits. “Knowing your body’s limits will help you to understand when you might be pushing too hard, but also when you’re not pushing hard enough,” says Bell. Because of this, it allows doctors and trainers to prescribe an appropriate exercise program for you. “Properly progressing in a workout routine is essential to consistency and injury prevention,” she says.
Additionally, VO2 max can be a predictor of longevity. Research shows that those with a higher VO2 max tend to live longer than those with lower results.
What are normal numbers for VO2 max?
VO2 max is measured in milliliters of oxygen per minute per kg of bodyweight (ml/min/kg.) “Numbers range from the 20s for an untrained, sedentary individual, to in the 90s for the greatest athletes in the world,” says Bell. Average ranges for men and women vary based on age, fitness level, and gender, and can range between 26-32. “Men who are in the higher percentages (80-90 percent) will measure between 42-51, and women in the higher percentages will measure between 35-44,” says Tyler.
How do you measure VO2 max?
The most accurate assessment of VO2 max is done in a lab with special equipment. There you’ll exercise on a treadmill or bicycle while wearing a mask that measures the volume and gas concentrations of air you breathe in and out. “You work in progressively hard stages,” says Tyler. “As your intensity increases, so does your cardiac output (heart rate and stroke volume), as well as the amount of oxygen your muscles extract from your blood. Eventually, you will hit your maximal heart rate (and cardiac output), and your oxygen uptake will plateau.” The highest rate of oxygen consumption is considered your VO2max.
How can you improve your VO2 max?
To increase your VO2 max, you need to increase the amount of energy that is delivered with every beat of your heart, and improve how efficiently your muscles actually use that energy. The best way to accomplish this is by doing interval training, especially high-intensity. “You can do these cardio intervals on a bike, rowing machine, treadmill/running, or by swimming,” says Tyler. “You don’t have to jump into it—progress slowly and safely, gradually increasing both duration and intensity of exercise.”
Although VO2 max is an interesting metric that can measure your physical fitness, it’s not necessarily something you need to stress about improving. It can be a useful tool to help you maximize your fitness, but it’s not the only gauge of how fit you are. That being said, engaging in heart-pumping workouts, which can be found on the Aaptiv app, will help improve your VO2 max and keep you healthy.