Should I be concerned about my VO2 max?

Noew VO2 max: 58.7 mL/kg/min, Bryan Johnson, the 45-year-old tech entrepreneur who spends an estimated $2 million ($1.6 million) a year on de-aging, recently announced on Chirping. Ranking me in the top 1.5% of 18 year olds. As a gauge of the body’s ability to use oxygen, that’s pretty good, but perhaps more impressive than the number is the fact that it challenged itself in the first place. Any runner who’s done it knows that gradually picking up the pace on a treadmill while wearing a rubber mask isn’t exactly a good afternoon.

But does that statistic really mean anything? Is Johnson’s number good? And anyone outside the winter biathlon circuit needs to know their VO2 maximum?

Let’s start with the definitions. As a concept, VO2 max was first studied in the 1920s by researchers who observed that oxygen consumption increases with running speed up to a certain limit, and then no more. At this point, your body has to rely on other sources of energy and can’t sustain that level of exertion for long. Your number, therefore, represents that peak: the maximum amount of oxygen (O2), measured by the volume (V), your body can absorb during your workout.

VO2 max is often interpreted as an indicator of cardiorespiratory fitness, and many exercise training studies use it as a measure of effectiveness. Infinite training plans offer to improve your VO2 max, usually using excruciating three-minute bursts of sprinting interspersed with lower-intensity efforts. Relative item2 max, which allows comparison between athletes, is measured, as in Johnson’s tweet, in milliliters of oxygen per kilogram of body weight per minute.

VO2 max is slightly tricky to measure correctly, however.

Woman running on a treadmill wearing a mask to measure oxygen levels
The most accurate, albeit grueling way to test your VO2 max. Photograph: Vincent Starr Photography/Getty Images/Image Source

Many smartwatches will give you a figure calculated by evaluating the relationship between your running pace and your heart rate, while old-school runners often rely on testing their pace over various distances and calculating their results with a calculator. The most accurate thing, of course, is to get on a treadmill or stationary bike while wearing that rubber mask (usually available at professional sports facilities or high-end gyms), which allows testers to measure the gas mixture you’re inhaling. and breathing out, giving you the best possible picture of your oxygen uptake.

And, to be clear, 58.7ml/kg/min is pretty good. The highest scores recorded are in the 1990s, mostly from Olympic-level cyclists and distance runners, but the average sedentary man huffs in the 35 to 40 range. The average for women is slightly lower at 27 to 39. It’s not the single determining factor for performance in endurance sports. 1969 world record marathon runner Derek Clayton reportedly only posted a 69, while slower runners were racking up numbers in the 80s, but it sure helps.

How important is all of this to your health? The surprising answer, considering most people don’t know their number, is: probably quite a lot.

There is an incredible amount of evidence that your VO2 max can predict cardiovascular disease risk, says Brady Holmer, a runner and performance specialist who is conducting doctoral research on cardiovascular physiology. Also, the association of VO2 max with morbidity and mortality is stronger than that for usually considered risk factors, such as cholesterol, BMI, and blood glucose. In a large-scale meta-analysis in 2022, for example, subjects who ranked in the top third of aerobic capacity as measured by VO2 max had a 45% reduced risk of death from any cause compared with individuals in the bottom third.

But increase your VO2 does max somehow make you healthier or is it simply an indicator of a healthy functioning body?

Probably a little of both, Holmer explains. VO2 max is an assessment of whole body function. Your maximal aerobic capacity is an integration of physiological systems. Your autonomic nervous system, heart and blood vessels, lungs and mitochondria, among others, all influence your maximal aerobic capacity. You also need a strong body, as more muscle mass means you can extract more oxygen from your blood, and muscle mass and strength are both highly correlated with morbidity and mortality.

If you have a high VO2 max, in other words, you’ll likely also benefit from a number of other physiological metrics that indicate that you’re healthy, so our treadmill millionaire might be on the right track.

But to what extent a VO2 max be improved? Until recently, the common wisdom was that the fit was largely genetic: some people have high numbers naturally, some don’t, and training may only give you a 10% increase. Studies are scarce on the ground for why training to specifically improve VO22 max is hard and long.

Some trainers believe that long, slow workouts may work better in the long run for maximizing oxygen uptake than short, high-intensity workouts. The take-home message is that if your workout includes both styles of training, you’ll go a long way toward improving your health even if you never wear your mask and learn your number.

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