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  • Writer's pictureNick Allen

Measuring cardiorespiratory fitness: VO2 max

Last week’s Instagram post comparing the harm of having low cardiorespiratory fitness and the harm of smoking drew lots of comments and questions. Most were simply shocked by the results of this JAMA study. In summary, it found that people with “low” cardiorespiratory fitness had a 5x greater risk of death in the next decade than those with “elite” cardiorespiratory fitness. By comparison, they noted that smokers had a 1.4x greater risk of death than non-smokers. As we made sure to clarify in the post, this is absolutely not to say that smoking is compatible with health. Rather, this data emphasizes just how devastating physical inactivity can be. Smoking is extremely detrimental to health, so low cardiorespiratory fitness being comparatively worse (and by a wide margin) is really saying something.

Aside from the surprised reactions, people wanted to know what “low” and “elite” cardiorespiratory fitness actually meant. The metric most often used to quantify one’s fitness is VO2 max. Speaking technically, VO2 max is the maximum volume of oxygen that one can utilize during intense exercise. This measure is used widely in competitive endurance sports like running and cycling, where having a high VO2 max is essential for success. Even outside the realm of athletics, however, VO2 max is often the go-to metric for assessing cardiorespiratory fitness.

So how can you determine your VO2 max? While the official testing process is quite complex and costly, you can get a pretty good estimate using the new VO2 max calculator we’ve built into the website. It will also tell you where you stack up against people of your age and sex. Don’t be discouraged if the result isn’t what you were hoping to see, however. VO2 max is best used as a tool for improvement. If you were to dig deeper into the paper referenced above, you’d see that even just moving from the “low” cardiorespiratory fitness category to the “below average” category comes with a huge drop in rates of mortality.

In fact, while each step up comes with a significant risk reduction, the benefits get smaller as you get closer to the top. This means that you don’t have to be a world-class athlete to get almost all of the health benefits associated with high cardiorespiratory fitness. We recommend utilizing the VO2 max calculator to generate a baseline for yourself, and then coming back to it every couple months to see if your training has you on the right track.


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