In the past only the preserve of high-end sports watches, VO2Max has made its way to a number of popular 24/7 activity trackers and a plethora of other devices.
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. Men also typically tend to have higher VO2 Max than women.
The name is derived from V – volume, O2 – oxygen, max – maximum. It’s 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 decent 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, 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. Okay you won’t get any younger, but regular exercise and keeping your Vo2Max at high levels will protect you from many effects of aging. This is according to a recent study published by the Department of Sport Science, Medical Section, University of Innsbruck, Austria. It will also help keep diseases at bay. For example, a low VO2 Max is associated with higher risk of cardiovascular disease.
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 bump your score by up to 20% over a period of two to three months.
This can be done with both aerobic and anerobic exercise. 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.
Here’s a great little video from Firstbeat explaining Vo2 Max.
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. Generally, the more you use your wearable, the more reliable your VO2Max measurements will become. Firstbeat lists more than 60 in total! Here they are.
Vivosmart 3; Vivosmart 4; Vívoactive 3, 4 and Venu; Vivomove HR and 3; Vivosport; Forerunner 35; Forerunner 45/45S; Forerunner 230; Forerunner 235; Forerunner 245/245M; Forerunner 620; Forerunner 630; Forerunner 645 Music; Forerunner 735; Forerunner 935 and 945; Forerunner 920 XT; MARQ collection; Fenix 2, 3, 3HR, 5, 5 Plus and 6; Tactix collection; Quatix 3; Quatix 5 Series; Fenix Chronos; Edge 130; Edge 530; Edge 820; Edge 830; Edge 1000; Edge 1030.
Suunto 3 Fitness; Suunto 5; Suunto Ambit 3 series.
Fit, Band 2 Pro; Band 3; Band 3 Pro; Band 4 Pro; Honor Dream; Honor Magic range; Watch GT range; Talkband B5
TomTom Runner 3; TomTom Spark 3; Tom Tom Adventurer.
Montblanc Summit 2; Actxa Spur+; Withings Steel HR Sport; Huami Amazfit Stratos range; MiTac Run 350; Fjuul Premium; Jabra Elite Sport; Jabra Sport Pulse Special Edition; Pear Sports; PulseOn; Casio G-Shock GBD-H1000; Xiaomi Mi Watch range
But the list doesn’t end there. There are other wearables, such as Fitbit, that use their own proprietary measurements. This includes some of their 24/7 fitness trackers. Excluding fully fledged sports watches, a few of the more popular devices that dish out VO2 Max values can be seen below.
Fitbit Charge 2 and above
Fitbit Charge is pretty much a smartwatch disguised as a fitness tracker. It is our recommended device for the average person who does the occasional run or cycle here and there.
The fourth generation tracker slaps on built-in GPS. This means you can track your outdoor exercise with detailed stats and a map without your smartphone. Earlier generations only have Connected GPS. This means they need to tap into your smartphone for a satellite signal.
The device also offers 24/7 activity and sleep monitoring, 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.
Fitbit Inspire HR
Inspire HR is Fitbit’s most recent addition to its wearables range. It does not come with anything revolutionary. Rather, it repackages Fitbit’s existing technology into a more modern form-factor, and makes it affordable to the masses. In a sense, the activity band sits somewhere between the Alta HR and Charge 3.
The device is a good option for those starting to track their fitness as it covers the basics without overloading you with data. The only sensor that is missing is an altimeter for counting floors, but this will not be a dealbreaker to most. This means it spits out info on steps, distance, active minutes, sleep, heart rate and calories burned. Just like on Charge 3, you also get VO2 Max and Cardio Fitness Level.
Inspire HR is currently one of the best value for money fitness trackers in Fitbit’s range.
Fitbit Versa range
Versa comes with most of the sensors you’ll find on Ionic, but with its rounded edges, polished look and more compact form factor, it looks much better. Quite rightly, the company has realised that form is just as important as function.
When it comes to features, this is a water-proof smartwatch that puts fitness first. It includes everything you need for 24/7 activity tracking, along with capturing real-time stats on more than 20 different types of sports. And you are able to keep tabs on all this in real-time on the gorgeous hi-res touchscreen. Admittedly there is the lack of built-in GPS, but this helps keep the price down.
Garmin Vivosmart 4
Vivosmart 4 builds on the popular Vivosmart 3 fitness tracker. In additional to all the usual fitness tracking smarts, the fourth generation device comes with a SpO2 sensor and it will keep tabs on your body’s energy reserves.
The oxygen saturation feature measures your oxygen levels at night, allowing you to better understand your sleep quality. Body Battery energy monitoring uses a combination of stress, heart rate variability (HRV), sleep and activity data to let you know when to push hard, when to rest.
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.
Garmin Vivoactive 3, 4 and Venu
The Vivoactive range is Garmin’s answer to the all purpose sports smartwatch. The most recent fourth generation comes in a choice of size options, including Venu – a more pricey edition with an AMOLED display.
You get the full range of features such as Vo2Max and a comparison to those your age and gender. Plus there’s PulseOx and respiration rate in addition to all the usual fitness tracking stats.
With GPS onboard, the thing comes with multiple sports profiles, including new ones for snowboarding, cardio, yoga, elliptical and stair stepper. There’s storage for music, too, along with NFC for payments on the go.
Vivosport is an ultra-slim fitness band. 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 this functionality 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.
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