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Vo2 max or how to be younger than your years.

What is Vo2max? Why does it make a difference to your life? How is it measured and what should you do to change yours?

This sounds like a complicated test but it just measures how much oxygen our bodies can transport and use during exercise. The higher the level the fitter you are. Higher Vo2max levels are found where the lungs, the heart and the skeletal muscles – that is those muscles which help us move around - are all strong.

Here’s a quick biology lesson. When we breathe in oxygen passes into the pulmonary veins which lead to the heart. The heart pumps this oxygenated blood through the arteries at high pressure through the body. It flows into ever decreasing arteries and eventually much smaller channels called capillaries. If you’ve ever grazed your knee and seen the gentle red bloom of blood evenly covering the graze you’ll understand what capillaries look like. The oxygen from the capillaries feeds the muscles and afterwards the blood floods into the veins to be returned to the heart and lungs where it is re-oxygenated so it can begin the process again. Vo2max testing measures how much oxygen per minute is able to be transported in this way.

The final measurement considers the individual’s body weight and is given in the form of millimetres of oxygen used per kilogram of body weight every minute (ml/kg/min). This comes out at a fairly round number so you can easily measure improvements.

What should my Vo2max be?

All activities have an oxygen requirement. Driving a car requires 7ml/kg/min whereas firefighting while wearing protective equipment needs 42ml/kg/min. The Vo2max of sedentary residents in care homes can be as low as 9ml/kg/min and in endurance athletes it can be as high as 85-90ml/kg/min.

While our Vo2max levels tend to drop as we get older this is linked to people becoming more sedentary rather than as a result of the ageing process. With the correct exercise regime it should be possible to increase Vo2max at any age.

Why Increase Vo2max?

What difference does a high Vo2max reading make to lifestyle? Having a high Vo2max reading, or improving your Vo2max, is a great sign that you are improving your overall health because knowing your Vo2max helps you find out your Fitness Age. This is a comparison of your Vo2max reading with the age and gender of other people with the same readings. The baseline norms table used for this was developed by the American College of Sports Medicine.

Your fitness age is a great indicator of long term health. People with fitness ages which are lower than their actual ages live better quality, longer lives with less medical intervention or treatment. When you consider that 70% of common health issues suffered by people over the age of 50 are lifestyle related and can be avoided with good health habits, understanding your fitness age gives you useful insight into your life’s journey ahead.

How do I measure my Vo2max?

An exact measurement is dependent on an exhausting test where our oxygen levels are monitored using a mask; it’s not too easy to replicate at home. Fortunately, there are other ways to measure without fear of collapsing off an exercise bike. Personal Trainers can perform what are called ‘sub-maximal’ tests which don’t fully tire the participant. There are also cardiovascular machines in gyms which contain built in software to provide a reasonably accurate figure. If you are using these machines they will ask for your weight and age. This is because they are measuring the amount of oxygen used per kilogram of body weight and because they will compare you to the norms tables to help you find your fitness age. It’s important to be accurate and to remember the data you’ve inputted. If you’ve lost weight in between Vo2max measurements give the new weight but if you’ve just had a birthday bear this in mind when you receive your new reading.

A good training program can effect a change in Vo2max in over as little as 4-6 weeks. This is usually achieved with an interval training program which alternates between short bursts of high activity and slower recovery over a set time scale. Expect to puff and pant a lot.

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