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VO₂max: definition, how it is measured and how to improve it

What is VO₂max?

VO₂max, or maximum oxygen consumption, is a measure of the maximum amount of oxygen your body can use during exercise. It indicates the level of aerobic fitness and is an important factor in determining athletic performance and cardiovascular health. In essence, VO₂max represents your body’s maximum capacity to absorb and use oxygen during exercise.

The benefits associated with VO₂max are obvious: the higher its value, the more oxygen the body can harness, allowing more efficient use of oxygen to generate the maximum amount of energy in the form of ATP.

This results in a better ability of the body to cope with aerobic activities that require high oxygen consumption, such as running, swimming, and other types of cardiovascular training. A high VO₂max thus indicates a well-trained cardiorespiratory system and a body that is efficient in using oxygen to sustain physical exertion.


How to calculate VO₂max?

Tests to calculate VO₂max must be conducted in medical facilities such as laboratories or hospitals by physicians, cardiologists, or fitness specialists.

In some cases, personal trainers and certified fitness instructors may be allowed to conduct certain types of tests to measure VO₂max. These tests are often called “submaximal” tests because they do not provide the same level of detail as a controlled laboratory test. Despite this, submaximal tests are still useful for measuring VO₂max levels and overall cardiac and pulmonary endurance during exercise.

Choosing the most appropriate VO₂max test depends on the person’s fitness level. A doctor or instructor might prescribe one of the following tests if you exercise regularly or are a trained athlete:

  • Astrand treadmill test: a reliable test performed on a treadmill
  • 2.4 km running test
  • Multi-stage bleep test

For those who are new to exercise or have not exercised for a long time, a simple walk/run test can be performed on a treadmill. Other possible VO₂max tests include:

  • Cooper’s 1.5-mile walk/run test
  • Rockport 1-mile walk test
  • Treadmill test

In addition, you can compare your speed or best time with the average results obtained by other people doing similar activities. This can provide a useful benchmark for assessing your progress.


What is a good VO₂max?

There is no “ideal” maximum oxygen consumption that one should necessarily achieve, but everyone should aim for a good or higher fitness level (at or above the 60th percentile).

Maximum oxygen consumption is influenced by several key factors, including age, gender, fitness level, and altitude (such as sea level or mountain environment). While some factors such as age and sex are beyond our control, fitness level, which is largely responsible for oxygen uptake, can be managed.

Below are some reference averages based on sex and age that can be used as a benchmark to assess one’s VO₂max, measured in METS:

Reference table of VO₂max measured in METS for men

Age20–2930–3940–4950–5960–6970–79
Superior55.45452.548.945.742.1
Excellent51.148.346.443.439.536.7
Good45.44442.439.235.532.3
Fair41.740.538.535.632.329.4
Poor<41.7<40.5<38.5<35.6<32.3<29.4

Reference table of VO₂max measured in METS for women

Age20–2930–3940–4950–5960–6970–79
Superior49.647.445.341.137.836.7
Excellent43.942.439.736.73330.9
Good39.537.836.3333028.1
Fair36.134.43330.127.525.9
Poor<36.1<34.4<33<30.1<27.5<25.9

How do you train VO₂max?

As we age, it is common for VO₂max, or the maximum amount of oxygen the body can use during exercise, to decrease. However, there are several ways to keep VO₂max levels high depending on age and desired fitness level.

One suggestion is to perform high-intensity interval training (HIIT), which involves alternating several minutes of intense aerobic exercise, such as exercise bikes, with periods of reduced intensity.

Another approach is to alternate several aerobic activities within a single training session, such as starting with cycling, switching to swimming, and then running. You can also improve maximal oxygen consumption with any type of cardio activity, even if it is not high intensity. Even simple exercise beyond a walk can improve cardiorespiratory fitness.

Increasing VO₂max offers numerous health benefits such as increasing oxygen intake and utilization in the body, maintaining health and fitness even in old age. In addition, as early as a few days or weeks after starting to improve maximal oxygen consumption, benefits such as feeling less exhausted or fatigued during daily activities such as climbing stairs, reduced stress levels, and a strengthened immune system can be noticed.

Learn more by checking out the latest scientific research on PubMed