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What is VO2 Max and how does it affect your fitness?

Fitness tracking using wearables is an obsession among active people. But there's one metric which you absolutely need to monitor, and that is VO2Max

You need to check your VO2 Max for greater health and fitness.
You need to check your VO2 Max for greater health and fitness. (Istockphoto)

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With smart treadmills and even smarter watches available, tracking fitness metrics is the newest obsession in the fitness world. And it is not a bad kind of obsession: There is a lot of useful data you can refer to if you are committed to your fitness routine. At the very least, this data can help you understand how your body is responding to what you are doing. One of these metrics is VO2 Max—which is a measure of how much oxygen your body can absorb and process while exercising. 

There are different ways to define VO2 Max, with  a article on Gauging Fitness describing it as “a reliable measure of an athlete’s fitness, as it reflects cardiac output, oxygen consumption, and mitochondrial mass.” A article, titled How Important Is VO2 Max? What Does Yours Actually Mean? defines it like this: “VO2 Max is the maximum amount of oxygen the body can utilise during exercise. It’s a combination of how much oxygen-rich blood your heart can pump and the heart’s efficiency in extracting and utilising oxygen.”

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The key takeaway is that Vo2 Max is an important metric of fitness and it is usually measured in millilitres of oxygen per kilogram of body weight per minute (ml/kg/min). This isn’t easy to calculate and is something that usually just elite athletes measure, but it is still important to know what a healthy Vo2 Max for you would be. 

Having scoured the internet for resources, the general average the medical fraternity has provided for healthy V02 Max levels are: 35-40 ml/kg/min for the average inactive male and 27-30/ml/kg/min for an average inactive female. There is a 4-5ml/kg/min increment in these averages if you are a younger person of around 25 years of age. 

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A competitive male runner will record 50-55/ml/kg/min by way of VO2 Max and the measure for women that would be 45-50/ml/kg/min. One of the most popular research papers quoted when it comes to Vo2 Max says that for optimal marathon performance, the number would be at least 84/ml/kg/min. The study is by by Michael Joyner, a hugely popular physiologist whose opinion is well-respected in the world of athletic performance.

One might think calculating VO2 Max is probably overkill, especially you’re your fitness level is either at a beginner/intermediate stage. But it is also one of the strongest independent predictors of future life expectancy, and that at least, should make one curious. And just like the endurance of any muscle, you can work on the betterment of your cardiovascular system to better your Vo2 Max. 

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The best part about working on Vo2 Max is that it is a fairly easy thing to do, especially if you are a runner. The key is to push the body's levels of performance using exercise methods that help improve this metric. With an increasing number of people in India becoming running enthusiasts, it is easy to illustrate a workout using running examples. Here is a basic template: Run fast for one minute, jog slowly for two minutes, sprint for 30 seconds, jog slowly for two minutes, and repeat. It is better to do your 5km run on the treadmill in this way, than just running at a steady pace if your goal is to extend your breaking point—which is what a higher Vo2 Max level will do. 

But for those who cannot or do not run, we go back to the most trusted method of training to increase any fitness level: HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training). With altitude, age, gender, and training all affecting Vo2 Max performances, the basic guidelines would be to put the body through a stop-start motion. “It works because you train your body to work at incredibly high levels for a period of time just long enough to push or surpass your anaerobic threshold before returning to a steadier, aerobic state,” says a article titled VO2 Max: The Fitness Metric That Can Help You Run Faster and Work Out Harder

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Those who have access to quickly being able to switch between cardio work can try switching from one activity to another. Run, cycle, swim, with breaks in between. Going through research material that gives preference to resistance training over conventional cardio training to increase Vo2 max levels, it seems that any kind of circuit weight training (including even the most basic weighted exercises) will teach your body how to utilise oxygen levels better.

Pulasta Dhar is a football commentator and writer.

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