These days the list of indicators that either show your strength, flexibility, general fitness or weight range seems to be endless: PS, PF, BMI, BMR, WHR, WC and ad infinitum. It looks like there are so many of them that it is very easy to get confused about all these letters and what they mean. And somewhere in all this commotion of abbreviations, you may come across VO₂ Max – once an indicator of fitness for professional athletes and sportsmen, which is now a rising star – a crucial health indicator.
If taking it superficially, VO₂ max is the maximum oxygen uptake your body utilizes during exercises or some other physical exertions.
But if looking at it from the perspective of a health indicator, VO₂ Max can be concluded to be the most powerful indicator of your health (cardiovascular primarily) and lifespan.
What is VO₂ Max?
VO₂ max is telling you how quickly you can take oxygen from the air into your lungs, get it into your blood, pump it to your muscles and then have your muscles use it in the metabolic processes that will provide energy to move you to do whatever you want to do. So it’s how much oxygen per unit of time can you process absolutely flat out.
Being the highest amount of oxygen a person can utilize during intense exercise, for example, running, skiing, or speed walking. It is especially important for athletes because knowing how well your heart and veins push blood to muscles can help to guide training and observe improvements over time.
VO₂ Max – a powerful health indicator: Why should you care about VO₂ Max?
But why should ordinary people care about VO₂ max? Let’s say, you are not an Olympic runner like Dave Bedford whose VO₂ max was 85mL/kg/min and he held 10k world records. What can this maximum oxygen uptake give you aside from letting you put a number to our cardio fitness?
The answer is the next: VO₂ max is one of the best predictors of your mortality and disease risks and by knowing this level you may aim to improve your fitness and thus become healthier and less likely to develop diseases. Multiple meta-analyses show that this measurement can be even more accurate in terms of death predictions than very typical for almost all disease risk factors such as smoking, obesity, or high cholesterol. And this has been shown across sexes, heart disease conditions and other comorbidities.
VO₂ Max as you age
As a person ages, their VO₂ max typically decreases due to a decline in cardiovascular and muscular function. This decline can be attributed to a number of factors, including a decline in the number and function of capillaries (the blood vessels that bring oxygen to the muscles), and a decrease in muscle mass.
Usually, the peak is around your 20s. The decline starts around the age of 25-30 when maximum oxygen uptake begins to drop by about 10% per decade. As a person reaches older ages, such as 60-70, the decline in VO₂ max becomes even more pronounced. At the age of 70, the VO₂ max may be dropping by 23% at this time. Studies have shown that this decline is more significant in males than females.
Seven proofs that VO₂ Max is a great health indicator and lifespan predictor
It is pretty obvious that the level of your fitness has a clear association with your overall health and disease risks. Plus, as VO₂ max is directly dealing with lung and heart health, it’s related to the disease risk of these two organs. But VO₂ max results may be also connected to the indication of your metabolic health, risk of severe diseases such as COPD and some types of cancer and even mental health.
Different studies have different results, but improving your VO₂ max by 1 MET (metabolic equivalent), or 3.5mL/kg/min, can increase your chance of survival from chronic conditions by 10-25%, which is a really good payoff for an attainable fitness improvement.
Let’s have a closer look at how VO₂ max rates are correlated with your health and lifespan.
1Predicts your risk of atherosclerosis
VO₂ max is considered a strong indicator of cardiovascular fitness and health, as it reflects the body’s ability to supply oxygen to working muscles. A higher VO₂ max generally indicates better cardiovascular fitness and a lower risk of heart disease.
Studies have shown that people with lower VO₂ max values are at a higher risk of developing heart disease and other cardiovascular conditions. Additionally, VO₂ max can be used as a predictor of mortality, with lower values being associated with a higher risk of death.
One study divided 707 men into 3 groups according to the VO₂ max rates. The subjects were followed for 6 years – from 2010 to 2016. The low VO₂ max group (the average rate was 35 ml/kg/min) showed 3.5-fold higher risks of carotid atherosclerosis (a disease that occurs when plaques build up in carotid arteries, it may later result in stroke).
2Identifies the risk of stroke
Another study pointed out that participants who had a low VO₂ max (less than 25.2 mL/kg per minute) had a 220% relative risk of stroke and a 250% risk of ischemic stroke if compared to men with higher VO₂ max levels (more than 35.3 mL/kg per minute).
3Provides a good indication of lung health and helps with lung illnesses
For sure, VO₂ max is primarily used to indicate cardiovascular fitness but it can also point at the weak and strong parts of your body including the lungs. A person with healthy lungs will typically have a higher VO₂ max than a person with lung disease. For example, in individuals with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), a chronic lung condition, VO₂ max tends to be lower than in healthy individuals, reflecting the reduced lung function in these patients.
In a study, improving VO₂ max rates through training on a treadmill was used as a way of treating lungs in COPD patients and enhancing overall health. After 4 weeks of training, a VO₂ peak was significantly greater in the group who was engaged in the activity, plus, the results of the research showed that VO₂ max improvement can be used as a part of rehabilitation from lung conditions (COPD in this very case).
Even if not suffering from diseases, aiming to improve VO₂ max and lung health can lead to overall health improvements. Having healthy lungs can help increase energy levels and improve overall physical fitness, and sleep quality and drop risks of chronic disease.
4Shows the likelihood of cancer development
Besides the fact that your VO₂ max is an indicator of your heart and lung health, it also may predict your likeliness of cancer development. In a study, people with intermediate and high levels of VO₂ max had 20% and 45% lower odds of cancer than those with low VO₂ max levels.
5Demonstrates the condition of your mental health
VO₂ max has been shown to be not only an indicator of physical health but also of mental health. Scientists managed to find a link between depression and VO₂ max levels. The study revealed that participants with a VO₂ max range of 15.8-28mL/kg/min had 240% higher odds of depressive symptoms. At the same time, people with a VO₂ max range of 36-65mL/kg/min had 0% of such a risk.
VO₂ max is proven to be a predictor of how long can people live. For individuals in poor physical shape, an increase in VO₂ max of 10% can reduce their mortality risk by 15% and extend their life by 10 years.
The researchers in the study aimed to investigate the correlation between cardiovascular fitness, as measured by VO₂ max, and lifespan. They examined the peak oxygen uptake of over 5,000 men, who were on average 49 years old at the start of the study and tracked their mortality rates for nearly five decades. The results of the study revealed that those participants who had a higher VO₂ max had a lifespan that was approximately five years longer than those who had a lower VO₂ max.
7Determines your metabolic health
Metabolic health is your body’s ability to properly regulate its metabolism, which is the process by which the body converts food into energy. Metabolic health is linked to overall health and well-being.
VO₂ max and metabolic health are closely related. A number of studies have shown that individuals with higher VO₂ max values tend to have better metabolic health and a lower risk of metabolic disorders such as diabetes and metabolic syndrome. Higher VO₂ max values have been associated with improved insulin sensitivity and glucose control, which are important markers of metabolic health.
There is also a positive association between VO₂ max and resting metabolic rate (number of calories burned when your body is completely at rest) with a better body composition profile. In a study, a group of participants with good levels of VO₂ max had higher resting metabolic rates. Thus, their bodies were able to burn more calories even at rest. Thus, enhancing maximal oxygen uptake may be recommended as a strategy to prevent obesity prevalence and an effective weight loss program.
Let’s Sum Up
VO₂ max is often thought to be just a measure of your fitness. But it actually can give the way more information about you. Being an eternal health indicator, not only does it reflect your likelihood to develop chronic diseases, but it also serves as a predictor of lifespan. Maintaining ‘good’ levels of VO₂ max can have a significant impact on various aspects of health, including reducing the risk of cancer and stroke, and even improving your mood.
Not enough? Here is more from our colleagues
This video will give you a clearer picture of what VO₂ max is on a cellular level and why is it an essential measurement not only of your fitness but health.
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