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.

Why should I improve my VO2 Max?

There are many reasons to improve your VO2Max. When you improve your fitness you’ll feel better and less stressed and daily life gets much easier. You’ll also perform better in a variety of sports, particularly endurance activities such as running and cycling. Another benefit is that you’ll turn back the clock. While you won’t get any younger, regular exercise and keeping your Vo2Max at high levels will protect you from many effects of ageing. It will also help keep diseases at bay.

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 sports and runners’ watches to choose from if you’re looking to monitor your VO2 Max. These include a those in the Garmin Fenix and Forerunner range; Polar V800; Jabra Sprite Pulse; and Suunto Ambit3.

The measurement is also becoming a staple of 24/7 fitness trackers. A few of the more popular devices which dish out VO2 Max values can be seen below.

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 basic smartphone notifications.

Plus there are a few 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.

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Amazon


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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Fitbit Ionic

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Fitbit’s first smartwatch packs some pretty impressive specs under the hood. You’ll find 8 different sensors inside including an altimeter, 3-axis accelerometer, digital compass, GPS, optical heart rate monitor, ambient light sensor, vibration motor and a new relative SpO2 sensor for measuring blood oxygen levels.

When it comes to features, Ionic covers everything you would expect from a Fitbit device, along with capturing real-time stats on 20 different types of activities including swimming. You get VO2Max too, along with on-board storage for music, smartphone notifications and Fitbit pay.

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Amazon


Garmin Vivosmart 3

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The Vivosmart 3 was launched a the start of this year. The 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.

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Amazon | Garmin


Garmin Vivoactive 3

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Launched about a month ago, Vivoactive 3 is a Swiss knife of activity trackers. Garmin has upgraded its design so that it now comes in an attractive form factor which closely resembles the company’s Fenix and Forerunner line.

You get the full range of features including Vo2Max and a comparison to those your age and gender. A first for the company, you also get Garmin Pay, which means Garmin customers can finally pay for purchases with their timepiece.

There are 15 built-in sports profiles, including new ones for snowboarding, cardio, yoga, eliptical and stair stepper. Vivoactive 3 will also let you mix it up by creating customized workouts.

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Amazon | Garmin


Garmin Vivosport

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Vivosport is an ultra-slim fitness band. It is slightly more expensive than Charge 2 but in addition to everything Fitbit provides, the tracker is waterproof, it comes with built-in GPS, all day stress tracking and counts reps and sets in the gym. An impressive feat that Garmin has managed to squeeze all that into such a small device.

Measuring 21mm in width, 10.9mm in thickness and weighing only 27 grams, you’ll hardly notice you are wearing it. It feels great on your wrist, fitting very snuggly.

You’ll get everything you could possibly hope for 24/7 activity tracking, including detailed info on steps, calories, distance, heart rate, activity, floors, sleep VO2Max and more. The GPS makes for more precise distance, time and pace tracking, along with route mapping for your runs. It will track your swims in the pool too.

Amazon | Garmin

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