January 18, 2022

VO2 Max: How To Measure and Improve It

Use your oxygen uptake number as a way to help you train or work out more efficiently

Person exercising on a machine while being monitored for breathing and heart rate

If you exercise regularly, you probably keep track of how many minutes you work out, how many calories your burn and your heart rate.

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But there’s another indicator that can help you improve your aerobic fitness.

VO2 max — or your oxygen uptake — shows how much oxygen your body absorbs and uses while working out. V is for volume, O2 is for oxygen and max is for maximum.

Sports medicine physician Matthew Kampert, DO, MS, explains how to measure your VO2 max and how to improve it.

“It gives you an objective view of your health,” says Dr. Kampert. “It gives you a good idea of how effective your training is.”

How to measure your VO2 max

Having an idea of what your VO2 max is can help when it comes to training for sports, improving your health and getting the most out of your workout.

VO2 max shows how well your heart pushes blood to your muscles and how efficiently your muscles can extract that oxygen from your circulating blood. As you breathe in oxygen, it powers a metabolic reaction within your muscle cells that gives your muscles energy called adenosine triphosphate (ATP). You breathe faster and deeper while exercising because your body needs more energy to work

“During exercise, the body will use oxygen and produce carbon dioxide, which is let out as you breathe,” explains Dr. Kampert.

VO2 max is typically measured in milliliters of oxygen consumed in a minute per kilogram of body weight (mL/kg/min). Having a higher VO2 max number typically means you’re in good cardiovascular shape, but you could also increase your VO2 max by losing body fat.

There isn’t one golden number for each person, but professional athletes tend to have a higher VO2 max number. While VO2 max tends to decline in age, regular exercise can greatly slow this decline.

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You can find out your VO2 max number by performing a cardiopulmonary exercise test at your doctor’s office or exercise medicine lab. Typically, you’ll wear a mask over your face to record your oxygen consumption and carbon dioxide production while running on a treadmill, riding a bike or doing some other form of cardiovascular task.

“We can determine the volume of air you moved with your breath and also the composition of carbon dioxide and oxygen,” says Dr. Kampert.

By measuring how much oxygen is converted to carbon dioxide, you’ll find out how many calories you burn at different levels of exercise intensity. Your heart rate will also be monitored at different exercise intensities.

“We can then use that data to develop an exercise prescription with specific heart training zones to maximize the burning of fat for individuals interested in weight loss,” says Dr. Kampert. “So by knowing how much oxygen we consume, that’s how we can determine your VO2 max.”

Certain fitness trackers and devices can also estimate your VO2 max by using your heart rate.

“VO2 max is the gold standard for measuring cardiorespiratory fitness,” notes Dr. Kampert.

What’s a good VO2 max?

VO2 max numbers vary from person to person. Factors like age, gender and fitness level will affect your VO2 max number.

VO2 max for men

Here are VO2 max averages for men 18 to 45 years old, based on activity level:

Activity level
Sedentary
Average VO2 max
35-40 mL/kg/min
Active
Average VO2 max
42.5-46.4 mL/kg/min
Very active
Average VO2 max
≤ 85 mL/kg/min

VO2 max for women

Here are VO2 max averages for women 18 to 45 years old, based on activity level:

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Activity level
Sedentary
Average VO2 max
27-30 mL/kg/min
Active
Average VO2 max
33.0-36.9 mL/kg/min
Very active
Average VO2 max
≤ 77 mL/kg/min

How to improve your VO2 max

Improving your VO2 max (and your oxygen intake) means you’re setting your body up for success and how much cardio it can handle. You’ll be able to swim or run (or participate in other cardio-related activities, including hiking) with more intensity and for longer.

Knowing your VO2 max is also a good baseline of your athletic abilities if you’re looking to train or perform at a certain level.

But if your VO2 max isn’t where you want it to be, you can improve it by trying the following types of exercise:

  • High-intensity training (HIIT), which requires doing a few minutes of intense aerobic exercise, reducing intensity for a few minutes and then increasing again.
  • Low-intensity training like running, biking, hiking or rowing.

“You want to aim to decrease your body fat percentage, while preserving lean muscle mass,” says Dr. Kampert.

While HIIT is an effective way to increase your VO2 max, switching up your low-intensity training can help as well, especially since those types of workouts are less stressful on your body.

Overall, improving your VO2 max and keeping track of it can play a huge role in your health, and can be a good indicator of your fitness level.

“If we improve that VO2 max, we decrease your risk of having a cardiovascular event because what it shows is that you improved your cardiovascular health if you’re able to improve that VO2 max,” says Dr. Kampert.

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