Your VO2Max and Why It’s Not Only for Elite Athletes

So what is VO2Max? This value is the maximum oxygen uptake an individual utilizes during maximal exercise and it reflects the amount and ability of an individual to bring in, transport, and utilize oxygen in the body tissues. This therefore is measuring the individuals’ functional aerobic capacity and the value is expressed as amount of oxygen utilized per kilogram of bodyweight. Studies have demonstrated that the VO2Max is the “gold standard” laboratory measurement of cardiorespiratory fitness.  Generally this measurement is most often utilized in elite endurance athletes (cross-country skiers and runners, marathoners), as a way for them to quantify their endurance levels and tailor their training to improve upon it.

When comparing men of average aerobic capacity to average women, it is men who have a higher VO2Max. This is potentially due to slight variations in physiology and overall differences in body composition. Multiple studies have been able to demonstrate, through monitoring the VO2 Max as individuals age, is that age individuals become older their VO2Max will decline. After about the age of 25-years-old the VO2 Max can decrease about 1% per year; unless an individual stays active.

The age-related decline in VO2Max can be slowed in individuals who find ways to stay active. In a study there were endurance athletes with an average age of 62-years-old compared to sedentary individuals of approximately the same age, and their VO2Maxes were compared. It was found that those who participate in regular, vigorous exercise training, the rate of decline of VO2Max could be halved. In another study, it was demonstrated that even if endurance exercise had not been present in the elderly, it is not too late to start. It was found that relative gains of VO2Max in individuals aged 60-70-years-old could be of the same magnitude (not absolute value) as those of young adults. It is also beneficial for individuals to stay active as they age, as a large portion of the age-related decline in VO2Max is in part due to a loss of muscle mass; which is commonly observed with advancing age.

A patient’s VO2Max can also be used in various medical conditions, notably Congestive Heart Failure, can be used to monitor their response to medical therapy and to help determine their prognosis. Exercise capacity is reduced in patients with heart failure, as their heart cannot increase its cardiac output sufficiently to keep up with the demands of the exercising body. This inability to provide enough blood to the working muscles can be a cause for early fatigue and a cause of muscle atrophy, which as stated above can further worsen VO2Max. Studies have determined that exercise training in CHF patients does not alter cardiac function at rest, but it may allow for more exercise to be completed; as cardiac efficiency, gas exchange in the lungs, and oxygen use by the muscles may all be improved. The use of VO2Max in CHF patients also helps determine prognosis of survival at one and two years, as those who achieve a VO2Max under 50% of their estimated maximum have significantly less survival rates at those endpoints.

The VO2Max can not only be utilized to determine functional endurance fitness and be used as a marker of progression of disease, but it can also be used by all individuals as a way to measure overall health. In a study of young individuals, age 23-27-years-old, markers of health were obtained and their VO2Maxes measured. It was found that high cholesterol, triglycerides, and body fat were related to a decreased VO2Max. There was no relationship between HDL cholesterol (good cholesterol) and physical activity. What this study demonstrated is that individuals with a higher VO2Max have a more favorable cardiac disease risk profile; and that this profile was not related to time spent on physical activity, but to the intensity of which it was performed.


Chase King, MS-IV

David Carfagno, D.O., C.A.Q.S.M.



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