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vo2 max cardiovascular health & fitness

VO2 max is term commonly used in the fitness industry. It’s an abbreviation for “volume of O2 max”, where O2 refers to oxygen.


Listen to Dr. Neal address this topic on Episode 575 of the podcast Optimal Health Daily.


If you're wondering why oxygen is referred to as O2, when oxygen is found in the air as a gas, it is often found in pairs. If you were to look at the oxygen we breathe under a powerful microscope, you would see that really, it’s two oxygen molecules bound together

So we’ve established that the “V” in VO2 max stands for volume and the “O2” means oxygen. The term “max” is actually a bit more obvious; it stands for maximum.

VO2 max refers to the maximum amount of oxygen you can consume and use at a given time. We like to use VO2 max in the fitness industry because the amount of oxygen your body can consume and use at a given time is directly related to how healthy your heart and lungs are.

Think of it this way: you already know we need oxygen to survive, but we need more of it when we’re working out.

  • Our muscles desperately need it to allow us to continue our workouts
  • Your brain needs oxygen to allow you to continue to think and process
  • Our hearts need oxygen to continue beating

V02 Max Values

Where does all of that oxygen come from and how does it get to all of these areas of the body?

The air we breathe contains some oxygen (along with other gases like nitrogen and hydrogen), which then goes to our lungs, and from there, enters our bloodstream. Once the oxygen enters our bloodstream, we have to rely on the heart to pump that blood that is now rich in oxygen (or O2) out to the rest of the body, like our muscles that so desperately need it when we’re finishing that last hundred meters.

The better, or more efficient, your body can do this, the longer you’ll be able to sustain your workout. This is why VO2 max is a valid and reliable measure of how well your heart and lungs are working–if your body can quickly and efficiently send oxygen rich blood to the rest of your body, then it means your heart and lungs are doing their jobs. Or, said another way, your heart and lungs are in good shape! I can say this differently using “fitness lingo”: you have a high level of cardiorespiratory fitness.

VO2 max (the maximum amount of oxygen your body can take in and consume at a given time) can actually be represented as a number. Once you know that number, you can compare it to values for your age and gender to see how fit you are compared to others within that same age and gender category. For example, if you are a 31 years old female, and your VO2 max was over 40, your cardiorespiratory fitness is at a minimum, average. Once you get past “average,” the rankings increase to “good,” then “high,” then “athletic,” then finally topping out at “Olympic.”

I should also mention that there are different normative value tables, depending on how your VO2 max is being tested.

How Can You Increase Your VO2 Max?

The best way to do that is to incorporate variety in your training. There are many ways to go about this. Here are some examples:

  • If you normally do cardio only, add some resistance training. It could be body weight exercises, lifting actual dumbbells and barbells, using resistance bands… whatever suits you. Why would this help? It forces your body to adapt to something new. This means your heart and lungs have to respond to something they are not used to. This, in turn, makes them more efficient, which is the hallmark of measuring VO2.
  • If you already perform resistance training exercises, decrease the rest periods between sets. Why would this help? Again, you’re forcing your heart and lungs to adapt to something different. By giving your body less time to recover, you force your heart and lungs to work harder and become better at supplying your muscles with blood and oxygen.
  • When it comes to cardio, change the intensity. If you normally walk for 30 minutes, jog instead. I don’t expect you to jog for 30 minutes straight. Even if you end up jogging for only 5 or 10 minutes and then walk the other 20, that’s fine. Why would this help? You’re forcing your heart and lungs to adapt to something different.
  • Lastly, as I always say, be consistent. In this case, be consistent with inconsistency! Try to mix up your workout routines every so often. A good starting point is to change things up once every 4 weeks. For example, if for the last month or so, you’ve only been resting 30 seconds between sets of resistance training exercises, go back to a longer rest period of 2-3 minutes. Then after 4 weeks of following that protocol, change your rest period to 10 seconds between sets. Do that for 4 weeks. You get the idea. The same rules can be applied to your cardio routine. If you’ve been jogging at a medium pace for the past month, start running sprints.

Listen to Dr. Neal address this topic on Episode 575 of the podcast Optimal Health Daily.

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Neal Malik

Dr. Neal Malik ("Dr. Neal") is currently a professor at California State University, San Bernardino. Before this, he served as Department Chair at Bastyr University California. Dr. Neal has also published peer-reviewed scientific research and presented at national conferences. Send in your health related question and Dr. Neal will answer it on the Optimal Health Daily show!
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