Who doesn’t want to live a long and healthy life? Everybody does, right? We tend to fulfil our lives with various precious events and pleasing experiences so that we can enjoy our time and live to the fullest. However, when we reach the age of 40 and older, we tend to start caring about ageing more. People deal with it differently: some start taking supplements, some buy mountains of magic anti-ageing creams, others begin leading a healthier lifestyle, and some are just going with the flow.
The thing is – time is incessant and age is irreversible. But, while you are not able to change the numbers in your passport, you are able to outsmart the process by making your body younger. One way to do this is by improving your VO₂ Max – an eternal health and longevity indicator.
What is VO₂ Max and why does it matter?
VO₂ Max (maximum volume of oxygen) is not just a figure of maximum oxygen uptake, nor is it just a number that says how fit you are. It is also a really powerful health and lifespan indicator. A higher VO₂ Max is associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease, as it indicates better cardiovascular fitness and endurance. People with a good maximum volume of oxygen level are less likely to succumb to cancers and lung diseases, plus are proven to live longer.
Overall, improving your VO₂ Max and cardiovascular health can make you healthier, and stronger, and lead to a more active lifestyle now and as you age. Improvements in your maximum volume of oxygen levels also lead to better cardiovascular function, make your muscles stronger, lower blood pressure, ward off certain chronic diseases and even improve your mood.
Nine ways to improve your cardiovascular health and VO₂ Max
To improve your maximum volume of oxygen and cardiovascular health, you will need to progressively increase the intensity and difficulty of your training. Initially, any form of exercise will likely yield positive results, especially if starting from sedentary. However, as you become more well-trained, the improvements will become slower and you will need to train at a higher level to see further development.
One way to make your training harder is by using the FIIT principle. This stands for Frequency, Intensity, Time and Type. By changing or increasing one or more of these elements, the training will become harder for your body and you will therefore adapt and improve.
One way to improve VO₂ Max is to utilise High-Intensity Training. This is where you push your body hard and close to its current limit, challenging yourself. By elevating your heart rate to 80-90% of your maximum heart rate. This means that all of your body’s systems should be working at or near their maximum capacity. Although difficult, this is one of the best and most reliable ways to build a healthy cardiovascular system.
Note that it is not the only way and should only be utilised when your body is ready for this type of training.
1High-intensity interval training is the best way
High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) is considered to be one of the best ways to improve VO₂ Max because it is an efficient way to increase cardiovascular fitness and endurance.
This type of training is a game changer when it comes to the maximum volume of oxygen improvement. First of all, HIIT involves alternating periods of high-intensity exercise with periods of rest or low-intensity exercise. This places a high demand on the cardiovascular system and leads to an increase in the amount of oxygen the body can consume and transport to the muscles. As a result, the body adapts by increasing the number of red blood cells and improving the efficiency of the cardiovascular system, leading to an increase in VO₂ Max. What is more, HIIT also leads to an increase in muscle mass, which also helps to increase the maximum volume of oxygen.
A review in Sports Medicine shows that both endurance training and interval training raised VO₂ Max. But HIIT still showed better results. Participants practising endurance training had a 4.9mL/kg/min increase in VO₂ Max while those who took on HIIT – 5.5mL/kg/min.
It’s important to note that HIIT can be challenging, especially for those new to this type of training. As a beginner, you may want to start with 30-second intervals and gradually increase the duration.
2Endurance training will help as well
If you are new to training, to increase your VO₂ Max, it’s best to begin with easy runs or strenuous walks at a lower heart rate. These workouts should be done without pushing yourself to the point of exhaustion or running at an extremely high intensity. Instead, focus on building your aerobic ability and improving your running/walking form. This will give you a good foundation for further maximum volume of oxygen improvement. As you increase your endurance and are able to go longer before feeling tired, you can start to incorporate HIIT training and finally, lactic interval training.
Other forms of endurance training that you may use at the very beginning of your VO₂ Max improvement path are cycling, swimming, and cross-country skiing.
There is no better endurance sport than cross-country skiing. It has been found that cross-country skiers can achieve VO₂ Max levels of 70 to 80 mL/min/kg. Impressive, especially when remembering that VO₂ Max values of 45-49 are considered to be great, 70-80 is superior skiers achieve their high maximum volume of oxygen through mostly endurance training with small amounts of intervals, as shown in a study published in Frontiers in Sports and Active Living in 2021.
3Add high speed on a short distance to your runs
Lactate threshold training is a powerful way to boost your VO₂ Max, though it is not easy. This type of training is challenging and demanding.
The lactate threshold is defined as the point at which lactate acid builds up in the bloodstream faster than the body can remove it. The slower the buildup, the longer you can sustain intense exercise. By increasing your lactate threshold, you will increase your VO₂ Max value. This is because a higher lactate threshold means that your body has enough oxygen to remove the lactate effectively.
To increase your lactate threshold, you can do intervals of 800m or 1000m at full speed, resting by jogging for 400m. It is recommended to do six or seven of these intervals and then increase to 1000m or 1200m rounds. To effectively do lactate intervals, it is important to know your lactate threshold and to be in good physical shape. Lactate intervals should be done after speed and aerobic training, and should be limited to two sessions per week.
4Combination of interval and continuous training is even better
If you incorporate both continuous and interval training into your workout program, you may achieve better results than if you performed one of them alone.
According to a study, a 10-week training program that included six workouts per week has been shown to be effective in terms of significantly increasing VO₂ Max. This program involves alternating between interval and continuous running sessions. On interval days, participants perform six 5-minute intervals on a stationary bike at a high intensity, with 2 minutes of rest in between each interval. On continuous running days, participants gradually increase their running duration, starting at 30 minutes per day in the first week, and reaching a minimum of 40 minutes per day by the final weeks of the program.
The results of this study are rather striking. The total increase in VO₂ Max averaged 16.8 ml/kg per min (44%). Four of the eight participants attained VO₂ Max levels approaching or exceeding 60 ml/kg per min – an excellent level.
5Any option to temporarily elevate your HR is good for your VO₂ Max
Taking the stairs instead of the elevator can be an easy and convenient way to improve your VO₂ Max without adding any extra effort to your daily routine. This simple habit can help increase cardiovascular fitness, strengthen your legs and lungs, and burn calories. Additionally, it can be a great way to increase your physical activity levels and reduce the risk of chronic diseases associated with a sedentary lifestyle.
A study conducted at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada, evaluated the impact of a simple exercise “snack” on the VO₂ Max and peak power output of 24 healthy but mostly sedentary college students. The subjects were divided into two groups – one served as a non-exercise control group, and the other served as an exercise test group. The members of the test group were instructed to swiftly ascend a three-flight, 60-step staircase three times a day, preceded by a warm-up of jumping jacks, air squats and lunges, and followed by a cooling-down walk. After six weeks, the researchers found that the test group had higher VO₂ Max and peak power output compared to the control group, which translated to a 5% increase in overall aerobic fitness.
6Train your breathing
Breathing and oxygen consumption are intertwined with your physical performance, how well and how long you can endure exercise.
By improving your breathing you can also increase your VO₂ Max. This cannot be done by simply breathing faster or heavier.
In order to really improve your VO₂ Max you need to make yourself less sensitive to carbon dioxide levels and this can be attained through breathing exercises. By applying them you can experience such benefits as reduced breathlessness during exercise, increased oxygen delivery to working muscles, and improved stamina, you will get tired less quickly as well as make lactate acid buildup in your muscles slower. All of these benefits are received by improving the way you breathe to help increase your VO₂ Max.
One study observed the effect of pranayama, an ancient breath technique that originates from yogic practices in India, on the VO₂ Max of the participants. The experimental group practised pranayama weekly for five days, for a period of 9 weeks. The results showed a significant improvement in maximum volume of oxygen levels. At the very beginning, the average VO₂ Max was 1.62mL/kg/min and after 9-week practice 2.77mL/kg/min.
7Recovery after a challenge is crucial
After a strenuous training session active recovery is just what you need. It will help to increase blood flow to your muscles and remove toxins from your body that build up during exercise.
Yoga and stretching are especially beneficial for this purpose. These activities can also help with your VO₂ Max improvement journey by increasing lung capacity and flexibility, which can help to advance breathing efficiency. Additionally, they can help to increase muscle strength and endurance, which can also contribute to improved cardiovascular fitness.
In a study, after performing yoga for 12 weeks maximum volume of oxygen was found to be increased for the participants of both sexes. The average improvements were: 30mL/kg/min went up to 33mL/kg/min for men and the results for females raised from 27mL/kg/min to 30mL/kg/min.
Thus, yoga and stretching can be used as a very efficient addition to your HIIT or endurance training sessions. Not only can they help you recover but also have VO₂ Max-improving potential.
8Make food choices which favour your cardiovascular system
A healthy diet is important for maintaining overall health and can also positively impact VO₂ Max. Adequate nutrient intake, especially carbohydrates and proteins, is necessary for energy production during physical activity and for proper muscle function. Eating a diet high in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains can also improve cardiovascular health, which can, in turn, improve VO₂ Max.
There are many foods that can increase the maximum volume of oxygen levels, but beetroot juice is one of the best. The high level of nitrates in beetroot has been shown to increase VO₂ Max.
Other products that are especially good as they aid your oxygen and blood flow are avocados, apples, and tofu.
9Sleeping 7-8 hours regularly will be a good foundation for your VO₂ Max improvements
Getting enough quality sleep is crucial for maintaining or improving VO₂ Max and overall fitness. This is because your sleep is essential for the repair and growth of muscles, and it can also help to improve overall cardiovascular function.
Studies have shown that lack of sleep can lead to decreased athletic performance, including dropped VO₂ Max levels, due to decreased energy levels, reduced muscle recovery, and impaired cardiovascular function.
In a study, heavy exercise performance after 36 hours without sleep was compared with that after normal sleep. During prolonged treadmill walking at about 80% of the VO₂ Max, sleep-deprived participants had reduced exercise tolerance ranging from 15% to 40%.
Thus, in order to be able to perform HIIT, endurance or any other physical training it is best to get 7-8 hours of sleep. Being well-rested will also impact your VO₂ Max, so make sleep a priority.
Let’s sum up
Improving your VO₂ Max can lead to positive health and lifestyle changes. You will be less likely to develop some chronic illnesses and have stronger muscles and better cardiovascular health. This is definitely worth trying. With these very healthy strategies for improving the maximum volume of oxygen discussed in this article, you will definitely push your health to another level. Start slowly and challenge yourself gradually but persistently and your body will become younger day by day.
Not enough? Here are some more from our colleagues
In this video, Dr Yo, a board-certified anesthesiologist who promotes health and wellness on his YouTube channel DrYoECAWellness, will provide you with further information to help you better understand what VO₂ Max really is and the ways of improving it through physical training.
Breathing is an integral part of our being and its quality significantly impacts all body processes. If you have noticed that you have trouble breathing, for instance, inhale with your mouth, or are willing to dive deeper into knowledge about breathing, oxygen, and CO₂ we recommend you read ‘The Oxygen Advantage’ by Patrick McKeown. This book gives guidance on how proper breathing can help you become healthier, slimmer, faster, and fitter.
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