Your VO2 Max- What is it and Why does it Matter?

You might be hearing the phrase “VO2 max” being thrown around a lot lately. You might even have a watch or fitness app that measures and records your VO2 max for you. But do you know what it really is and what it means for your overall fitness levels? Let’s take a look!

Maximal oxygen consumption, or VO2 max (V refers to rate, O2 refers to oxygen), refers to the maximum amount of oxygen that you can utilize while performing intense exercise (otherwise referred to as maximal exercise). The amount of oxygen you can use during high levels of exercise, the more energy you can produce- your muscles need oxygen for prolonged aerobic exercise, and your heart needs to pump enough blood to meet the demands of intense exercise. Therefore, it is considered the gold standard for determining cardio-respiratory fitness, and an indicator of how well your body can handle activities such as running, swimming, cardio-based workouts such as HIIT training, and other forms of cardio.

Your VO2 max is measured most accurately by a medical professional, but your FitBit or Apple Watch can give you a general idea of how high your score is. Although it is not as accurate as tests performed by a doctor, these devices do so by evaluating the relationship between your pace while performing intense aerobic exercise and your heart rate. The faster you run, for example, at a relatively lower heart rate, the higher it will rate your VO2 max score. 

Although it might sound like your VO2 max is only important if you are athletic, that’s not the case. Doctors also use it to measure your heart and lung health in general. Higher VO2 max is associated with lower risk of death. Everyone can benefit from increasing their cardiorespiratory endurance, regardless of whether they participate in intense exercise. Increasing your VO2 max is also correlated with lowered stress, less exhaustion while performing daily activities, and a boosted immune system! 

You might be wondering what you can do to increase your VO2 max. The easiest answer is to exercise more! The more frequent and intense your workouts are, the more likely they are to increase your score. However, even occasional intense workouts can increase your score overtime. Running, speed walking, swimming, and cycling are all good cardio activities to increase your VO2 max. Workouts such as HIIT (high intensity interval training) also help increase your score. You can always switch it up too! You don’t have to run for the entire workout if you can’t manage it yet- take things in intervals. Walk for a bit, then run, then walk. 

What should you shoot for? Well your VO2 max depends on several factors. Your age, gender, current fitness level, and even elevation all play a role. While things like age and sex are unchangeable, the good news is that the biggest factor is your fitness level, which can most certainly be changed overtime! Everyone should aim for a “good” or higher score, or around the 60% percentile or above. See chart below for examples.

Whether you are an athlete, well into your fitness journey, or just starting out, watching your VO2 max can be a very useful benchmark for your overall fitness level, and can help you keep track of progress! Remember, it doesn’t matter where you start, just that you continue to make progress! 


Typical VO₂ max for people born female measured in METS: