Friday, October 2, 2015

VO2 Max: Biomarker of Health

Photo by Charlyn Wee.
As a Baby Boomer, I have heard chatter about the value of cardiovascular fitness since Jane Fonda first marketed her aerobics videos.

However, I just investigated the assessment tools for VO2 and VO2 Max in my efforts to better understand biomarkers of health and longevity.

This post is part of a series on Biomarkers for Health

By looking at the tools used by researchers to measure fitness and pace of aging, I'm trying to better understand lab results that doctors might order for me or for my Greatest Generation parents.

I am also trying to use midlife as a time to prepare for higher quality of life during my 70s, 80s and beyond.  

For this reason, I decided to read a bit about various VO2 tests and VO2 Max tests as measures of cardiorespiratory fitness.

Note: This post is to raise awareness only. It does not offer medical advice. If you have concerns about your cardiovascular system, please see a licensed medical professional. 

While I could describe more technically the way oxygen is used by the body to fuel exercise, let me focus for now on the measurements of oxygen use during exercise.

In order to get good data on oxygen use, a person would have to go to a lab that puts an oxygen mask on the person for collecting data while doing vigorous exercise. I don't think my insurance will cover "blog research" as a medical need.  Consequently, I used an at-home test that is less accurate. 

I decided to perform the 1 Mile Walk Test and plug the values into the VO2 Max Calculator provided on Shape Sense's site,  I interpreted my results with their chart.  

It turns out that I have a lot of room for improvement. 

The chart indicates that for my age, my VO2 Max score should be 29-30 ml/kg/min to be in the GOOD range.  

Women’s Age
50 yo -59 yo
≤ 24
25 - 28
29 - 30
31 - 34

Source:  The Cooper Institute for Aerobics Research, The Physical Fitness Specialist Manual, Dallas, TX, 2005
via Shape Sense

My score was 22!   

It took me 19 minutes and 20 seconds to briskly walk 1 mile (no running allowed), and immediately after my pulse for 10 seconds was 20 (which is about 120 hpm).  That and my age/gender/weight resulted in my above mentioned score of 22.  

I'm 3 points below Fair in a 11 point range from crap to glorious (24 to 35). 

Granted, VO2 Max levels peak between 18 and 25 and are higher for men.  A 20-year-old male athlete may have a VO2 Max score in the 50s.   

I might feel a little better knowing that the highest recorded VO2 Max scores for men range into the 80s and 90s.  The highest scores for women range in the 60s and 70s. These people are statistical outliers, so we'll just bow to them and return to our regularly scheduled lives. 

However, the scale I'm using (24-34) is already calibrated for midlife women.  But--let me repeat--I scored 2 points below that at 22 ml/kg/min. 


I walk about 4 miles a day on average, but it's time for me to sprinkle in a little running now and then. This may be time for me to return to my spin classes. 

I wear a heart monitor when participating in spin cycling because it's very easy to work too hard there. I have to take it a little easier than the twentysomethings who frequent those classes. 

There are some watches available that claim to measure VO2 Max levels. However, I think that I will compare apples to apples and just redo the 1 Mile Walk Test once a month to see if I can improve my score by working a little harder (but not too hard) at the gym.

ETA: On October 10, 2015. I got an estimated VO2 Max score of 25.

I redid the same 1 Mile Walking Test I did on October 2, 2015 so that I could compare apples to apples.  (And I don't have $700 for a more official VO2 Max test.)  The score of 25 puts me in the FAIR category for my age.

What were my specific performance results? I walked a mile very briskly in 17 minutes and 11 seconds. My treadmill was set to 3.5 mph, which I could do without breaking into a jogging or running gait. My pulse for the 10 seconds following was 24 heart beats. (Or 144 hpm.)  

Maybe I wasn't taking the test very seriously the first time.  I also did a couple of sessions of high intensity training this week. I don't think I'll get another 2 point jump in one week, but maybe over the next few months I can continue to improve my cardiovascular health. 



  1. I'm trying to better understand the way increased oxygen affects our energy output. Recently, I read an article about Buteyko Breathing Method and found it fascinating. Here I thought it was beneficial to take deep breaths, and yet the Buteyko method points out the benefits of calmer, shallower breaths through the nose. Who knew there were so many varying opinions on breathing? Now I must study up on VO2 and VO2 Max. As always, I appreciate this information.

    1. The Buteyko Breathing Method sounds interesting. Thank you for mentioning it. All my best to you, Pam.

  2. I do yoga, dive whenever possible, and try to keep moving which is sometimes no fun as I have chronic pain. Oh boy, since my hips will not allow a non stop 1 mile walk I'll just have to forgo the test.

    1. Tam: You are doing great things to care for your body. I salute you for all that you do to maintain your health and to support your husband's health. You are a good woman doing many great things! Thanks for stopping by.

  3. I had no idea about any of this, and find it fascinating. I'm going to have to read more about it. Meanwhile, I play tennis 4 times a week and try to walk when I can.

    1. Tennis is really good for increasing bone density (that would make it less likely that you break a bone). You go, girl!

  4. You make a great point about attitude ("Maybe I wasn't taking the test very seriously the first time."). It is really interesting that measures of health can be changed with a shift in attitude. Just think what would happen if we took that shift in attitude and applied it to how we live -- take our health and what we are doing to promote just a bit more seriously. I am off to do some research. I love how you present this really heavy science in such an approachable way Karen!

    1. Have fun researching. Thanks for stopping by. These scores are making me rethink how I'm framing my exercise. I was thinking I could just focus on endurance and not intensity, but I probably need to do a little of both. Thanks for stopping by the blog, Ruth!

  5. I've never heard of this marker. Given the amount of exercise you do, your initial score makes no sense to me. Nor does your other. Hmm.

    1. Carol: I don't push myself on cardio as much as I did a few years a go. I'm more "slow and steady" about things. I have an injury on my right shoulder, my right hip, my lower back, my right thigh, and my right ankle. (What's the deal with my whole right side betraying me?) I used to do Zumba, but I was throwing my back out. I used to do spin 2x a week, but it was all too easy to have my heart rate be 170! I had to constantly do less than the 20 somethings to stay in my target heart rate. But I probably overcorrected and work out at 125 hpm all too often when I can do 145, but just don't push myself as I did before.

  6. I didn't know about this either, but my husband and I walk two miles every other day and we usually do a mile in 16.5 minutes. Sometimes we are slowed down by traffic etc. I know it is helping my blood pressure and my heart. Wishing you the best with this, Beth

    1. That's some fast walking! Way to go. (I'm glad you are watching out for traffic. Vehicles can be so unaware!)

  7. Oh boy. I'm in trouble. I'm increasing my vigorous cardio exercise to 2minutes for every five minutes of overall exercise. I have noticed I'm sleeping better and waking up more rested. Good info!

  8. Love the range "from crap to glorious." I'm very familiar with that range, in lots of different contexts. I walk a LOT (at least an hour a day) and I swim every day, but I walk and swim slowly. I learned a lot from this post. Thanks.

  9. I'm a walker and a swimmer, though I noticed I have slowed down a bit. I need to pick up my pace to get my heart pumping a little more. Thanks for the kick in the pants!

  10. I work out regularly and don't smoke. I've always wanted to try one of those oxygen bars though.