Maximising Longevity: The Power of VO2 Max

By Shawn Smith,

Published on Aug 7, 2023   —   2 min read


Discover how VO2 Max, a pivotal cardiorespiratory fitness indicator, can be optimised to significantly reduce premature death risks and promote longevity.

As a fitness enthusiast and an avid pursuer of longevity, cycling and good coffee, I've always believed in a holistic approach to health, which led me to explore VO2 Max, a key physiological marker that can be instrumental in predicting longevity. In simple terms, VO2 Max is the maximum volume of oxygen that your body can utilise per minute to produce energy during intense exercise, considering your body weight. This metric is widely regarded as the best indicator of cardiorespiratory fitness.

According to research, VO2 Max has a considerable bearing on mortality risk. People with a moderate VO2 Max fitness have about half the risk of premature death compared to those with a low VO2 Max. This is not all - those with elite VO2 Max levels are at a staggering 5 times lower risk of premature death compared to their low VO2 Max counterparts over a decade. [PMID: 35926933]

However, measuring your VO2 Max can be a bit tricky. The gold standard is to do it in a lab using a cycle ergometer or treadmill. Realising that lab-based VO2 Max tests are not readily accessible to everyone, I explored some alternative testing methods, including a shuttle test, Coopen's field test, and a 1-mile walk test, which can be performed outdoors. Interestingly, these alternative methods correlate reasonably well with the lab-based tests.

Recently, I underwent a bike VO2 Max test in a lab and achieved a VO2 Max of 51.4 ml/kg/min, placing me in the elite category for my age and gender. I also did a shuttle test the previous week and scored a VO2 Max of approximately 47 ml/kg/min, demonstrating the practicality of outdoor tests.

Years of consistent resistance training (five times per week) and a minimum of 150 minutes of Zone 2 training per week contributed to this result. In addition, I occasionally incorporated zone 5 training, totaling about 15 minutes per week. This is the area I believe I could focus on to further improve my VO2 Max.

We must acknowledge that genetics plays a significant role in VO2 Max. Traditional thought suggests we can increase our VO2 Max by 10-20% with training. However, these estimates might be conservative due to the short duration and suboptimal interventions (i.e., only zone 2 or only zone 5) of most clinical studies. It's worth noting that there are anecdotal records of people increasing their VO2 Max by as much as 40%.

To improve your VO2 Max, start with 150-300 minutes of Zone 2 training per week, a moderate-intensity cardiovascular training where you're slightly winded but still able to speak. This should be the cornerstone of your training regimen, as achieving a moderate level of cardiorespiratory fitness has been associated with halving your risk of death over a 10-year period. [PMID: 35926933]

Supplement your training with Zone 5 high-intensity exercise once you've established a solid Zone 2 training routine. The most evidence-supported protocol for Zone 5 training is 4 sets of 4-minute intervals with 85-95% of max heart rate, separated by 3-4 minute rests. If this is too intense at first, start with shorter intervals with a 1:1 work-to-rest ratio and gradually build up.

In conclusion, VO2 Max is an essential metric that can offer insight into our cardiorespiratory health and longevity. While genetics do play a role, we can improve our VO2 Max through consistent and strategic training, thereby increasing our chances of a healthier, longer life.

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