Tracking your Vo2 Max with wearables. Why is it important?

In the past only the preserve of high-end sports watches, VO2 Max has made its way to a number of popular 24/7 activity trackers.


So what exactly is it?

VO2 Max is a measurement of how well your body uses oxygen when you’re working out at your hardest. It reflects the aerobic physical fitness of the individual, and is an important determinant of their endurance capacity during prolonged exercise. Put simply, the higher your VO2 Max, the more fit you are. Results vary, of course, depending on fitness level, sex, age and genetics – the older you are the lower your VO2 Max is estimated to be.

The name is derived from V – volume, O2 – oxygen, max – maximum. Its expressed either as an absolute rate in litres of oxygen per minute (L/min) or as a relative rate in (for example) millilitres of oxygen per kilogram of body mass per minute (e.g., mL/(kg·min)). You are likely to find the latter expression on your fitness tracker or sports watch.

Traditional measurements of VO2 max involve running on a treadmill or stationary bike. Exercise intensity is progressively increased while a mask attached to your face measures ventilation and oxygen and carbon dioxide concentration of the inhaled and exhaled air. VO2 max is reached when oxygen consumption remains at a steady state despite an increase in workload, i.e. when you are exhausted.

Essential reading: Top 10 GPS watches for running and training

Anyone who’s ever had their VO2 max tested in a traditional lab setting can tell you that it’s not the most pleasurable experience. Thankfully, this can now be done with less effort and discomfort. The results aren’t going to be as accurate as those you’d get from a laboratory test, but they represent pretty good estimates.

Activity trackers start off by combining resting heart rate, age, gender, weight, and other personal information to arrive at an initial value. For a more precise score, the wearables use the relationship between pace and heart rate during your runs. This is because individuals with higher VO2 Max have a lower heart rate while running at the same pace compared to individuals with lower VO2 Max.

This requires you to run for at least 10 minutes, ideally with a device that also tracks GPS. You may need to go on several runs that are at least 10 minutes for a more precise score. It is believed that this method can achieve 95% accuracy compared to lab tests. When measuring, you also need to make sure that you run on flat terrains, as your score may be distorted if you are running uphill or downhill.


How do I improve by VO2 Max?

If your score is not as high as you would like it to be, don’t despair. There are things you can do to improve it.

Not surprisingly, the best ways to improve your score involve exercise and healthy weight loss. Fitbit says, increased exercise may help you improve your score by up to 20% over a period of two to three months.

Interval training is particularly effective at improving your fitness. It involves a series of high intensity exercise workouts interspersed with rest or relief periods. Or even more simply put, you run, cycle or row fast for a bit, then slow down for a bit. This is also a get-fit-quick scheme that works brilliantly well at burning fat.

Essential reading: Torch fat quickly with interval training: a beginners guide

Additionally, healthy weight loss (primarily by lowering your body fat percentage) can contribute to an increase in your cardio fitness score. On the other hand, unhealthy weight loss (lowering your muscle mass) can have a negative effect on your score.


Tracking VO2 Max with wearables

There are plenty of high-end wearables to choose from if you’re looking to monitor your VO2 Max. These include a number of sports watches in the Garmin Fenix and Forerunner range; Polar V800; Jabra Sprite Pulse; and Suunto Ambit3. A few 24/7 activity trackers also dish out VO2 Max values.


Fitbit Charge 2

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Fitbit Charge 2 is one of the best value for money fitness trackers you can buy today. This is a sleek looking device that delivers solid improvements on its predecessors in a few areas, particularly in terms of design.

While it doesn’t feature GPS connectivity, the tracker links to the GPS on your smartphone to provide more precise data on pace and distance when you’re running, while recording a map of your route in the app. It also offers Multi-Sport tracking and smartphone notifications.

Plus there are a few new features that tap into your hear-rate readings. Cardio Fitness Level gives you a snapshot of your fitness level using a personalized Cardio Fitness Score, which is based on your VO2 Max. It also shows how you compare to those of the same age and gender, and ranges from poor to excellent.

The other new addition are Guided Breathing Sessions. This is a relaxing mindfulness experience that calms your body and mind through personalized deep-breathing sessions called “Relax”.

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Fitbit Blaze

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The Blaze is Fitbit’s first wearable with a color touch screen that displays the time and other details about your movement throughout the day. Under the hood, the device sports a 3-axis accelerometer, 3-axis gyroscope, optical heart rate monitor, altimeter, ambient light sensor and fibration motor.

Blaze is sweat, rain and splash proof (depending on the type of band), but is not swim proof. From March this year, the tracker became a little more feature-packed with the introduction of Cardio Fitness Level and Guided Breathing Sessions.

Despite its looks, the Blaze is very much a fitness tool rather than a smartwatch. And there is definitely a market for this sort of wearable as indicated by its Amazon reviews. It covers the basics well, and offers a wide range of essential vitals stats.

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Garmin Vivosmart 3

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Garmin has added to its wide range of wearables the ultra-slim Vivosmart 3. The new tracker takes across all the features of its predecessors (apart from GPS), but adds more sophisticated fitness tracking tools such as VO2 max and fitness age, all day stress tracking, and the ability to count reps and sets in the gym.

Thanks to Garmin Elevate wrist heart rate technology, you still get 24/7 heart rate monitoring, and the wearable automatically tracks activity including steps, floors climbed, calories burned, intensity minutes, sleep and more. It also features smart notifications to keep you connected while on the go.

As part of that 24/7 monitoring, when users are not on the move the device will now measure heart-rate variability which it uses to calculate and measure stress levels. To make you worry-free, you will get relaxing mindfulness experiences through deep-breathing sessions. A longer timeline of stress levels is accessible on the smartphone app.

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Microsoft Band 2

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Microsoft Band 2 is without question a more premium version of the original device. The design is better, more sensors have been included, and the software has received subtle improvements. Although its long overdue for an update, the device is still one of the most sensor-packed fitness trackers you can buy today.

Microsoft Band can estimate your VO2 Max value using your biometric data, speed, and heart rate each time you go for a run, whether it’s outside or in the gym. The band uses its built-in GPS to capture speed if it has been activated while running outdoors. If GPS is turned off, or if you’re running indoors, speed is evaluated using the accelerometer. A database of thousands of VO2 max performances with matching biometric data is then used to estimate your oxygen consumption.

In a way, Band 2 sits somewhere between a fitness band and a smartwatch. What you get is a 24/7 activity tracker that provides you with a comprehensive health dashboard, a whole lot of sensors squeezed into it, and something that doesn’t look too bad or fit too uncomfortably on your wrist.

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