VO₂ max refers to how much oxygen your body can absorb and use during exercise.

If you’re looking to improve your aerobic fitness, you might consider maximizing your VO₂ max (sometimes called your oxygen uptake).

Read on to learn more about what VO₂ max is, how it’s measured, and how you can increase your VO₂ max.

VO₂ max is the maximum (max) rate (V) of oxygen (O₂) your body is able to use during exercise.

Oxygen is a critical ingredient in the respiratory process that’s involved in breathing. As you breathe in oxygen, your lungs absorb and turn it into energy called adenosine triphosphate (ATP).

ATP powers your cells and helps release the carbon dioxide (CO₂) that’s created during your respiratory process when you exhale.

The benefits are simple: The greater your VO₂ max, the more oxygen your body can consume, and the more effectively your body can use that oxygen to generate the maximum amount of ATP energy.

The greater your VO₂ max, the more oxygen your body can consume, and the more effectively your body can use that oxygen to generate the maximum amount of ATP energy.

This means that your body can better handle aerobic fitness activities that require a lot of oxygen intake like running, swimming, and other types of cardio.

This also means that a high VO₂ max can be a good predictor of your athletic performance, especially if you’re a runner or a swimmer.

Your VO₂ max amount can also act as a benchmark to track your progress as you improve your athletic abilities or if you’re trying to keep your VO₂ max at a certain level to maintain your performance.

Typically, VO₂ max tests are conducted in a medical facility like a lab or hospital by a doctor, a cardiologist, or a specialist in fitness.

Submaximal exercise tests

Some personal trainers and fitness instructors may also have certifications that allow them to conduct VO₂ max tests. These tests may be called “submaximal” because they won’t necessarily give you the level of detail that a controlled laboratory test can give you.

Submaximal exercise tests are still a useful way to measure your VO₂ max levels and your overall levels of heart and lung endurance during exercise.

The type of VO₂ max test that’s best for you depends on your level of fitness. Your doctor or instructor may have you do one of the following tests if you’re at a high level of fitness or a trained athlete:

You may do a simple walk/run test on a treadmill if your fitness level is lower. Other possible VO₂ max tests include:

  • Cooper 1.5-mile walk-run test
  • treadmill test
  • compare your best speed or time to average results from others for similar activities

How to determine VO₂ max METS

Want to get really geeky? Here’s the methodology for figuring out what your VO₂ max is as a figure called metabolic equivalents (METS). That’s the official term for how much energy your body uses when it’s resting.

Basically, 1 MET equals about 3.5 milliliters (mL) of oxygen (O2) divided by how much you weigh times a single minute.

That looks like this: 1 MET = 3.5 mL O2 / kilograms (kg) x minute.

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VO₂ max depends on a few key factors:

  • age
  • gender
  • fitness level
  • elevation, such as at sea level or in the mountains

There’s no one “good” VO₂ max that every single person should shoot for.

Here are some averages based on gender and activity levels that you can use for reference:

Gender (18 to 45 years of age)Activity levelAverage VO₂ max
malesedentary35–40 mL/kg/min
femalesedentary27–30 mL/kg/min
maleactive42.5–46.4 mL/kg/min
femaleactive33.0–36.9 mL/kg/min
malehighly active≤ 85 mL/kg/min
femalehighly active≤ 77 mL/kg/min

As you get older, your VO₂ max typically declines.

There’s plenty you can do to keep your VO₂ max levels at their highest for your age and desired fitness levels. A 2016 study found that even occasional intense workouts can help improve VO₂ max levels.

Here are some suggestions:

  • Perform high-intensity interval training. This consists of doing several minutes of intense aerobic exercises, like cycling on a stationary bike, reducing the intensity for a few minutes, and increasing the intensity again.
  • Switch up aerobic activities in a single workout. Start with cycling, then swimming, then running, and so on. Rest in between each activity.

Sample VO₂ max training workout

Here’s a VO₂ max workout that many people use to train for 10K races:

  1. Sprint as fast as you can for 5 minutes.
  2. Measure how far you went in those 5 minutes (for example, use a fitness tracker to measure steps, miles).
  3. Take a 5-minute break.
  4. Run the same distance you just measured, but go about 20 percent slower. If you went 2,000 steps in 5 minutes, try to do those 2,000 steps in 6 minutes.
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Based on research into the benefits of VO₂ max, the answer to this question seems pretty simple: It’ll help you live longer.

No joke: A 2018 study in Frontiers in Biosciencefound that increasing your VO₂ max can improve the delivery and use of oxygen by your body, maintaining your health and physical fitness well into your later years.

There are other daily benefits that you may start to notice within days or weeks of starting to improve your VO₂ max, such as:

  • being less exhausted or winded doing activities like climbing stairs
  • reducing your stress levels
  • boosting your immune system and getting sick less often

VO₂ max is a good benchmark for measuring your aerobic fitness levels because it literally tells you how well your body is using oxygen.

If you’re an athlete who loves cardio, then VO₂ max should be one of your calling cards for assessing your fitness and measuring your progress over time if you’re trying to improve your performance.

VO₂ max is also a strong predictor of your quality of life as you age. It’s worth tracking to find and maintain your VO₂ max score to help you stay healthy throughout your life.