- Previous research has shown that performing high intensity intervals twice a week for four weeks can improve your VO2 max by 3 percent.
- Now, new research shows that bumping up your VO2 max can also reduce your risk of heart disease and premature death.
- People who are in the lower range of VO2 max experience greater benefits from improving their levels.
Prior research has shown that even if you’re a well-trained runner, you can improve your VO2 max—the benchmark of cardio fitness—by 3 percent after doing just four weeks of high intensity interval workouts twice a week.
Now, a landmark study shows that VO2 bump will do more than let you crush the competition: You’ll also lower your risk of heart disease and premature death by about 3 percent.
Even better, you can get even greater early death and disease protection without the need for leg-sizzling intervals. You just need to move more.
In the largest study to date on cardiovascular fitness in healthy people, researchers from Sweden found that increasing your exercise and fitness levels is linked to living longer, no matter what your age or current fitness level.
To reach this conclusion, the study researchers examined data on first time cardiovascular events and death from any cause among 316,137 adults between the ages of 18 and 74, who had undergone health screening, including a VO2 max cycling test, between 1995 and 2015.
They found that for each milliliter increase in VO2 max, the risk of death from any cause and of a cardiovascular event like a heart attack dropped by 2.8 percent and 3.2 percent respectively.
VO2 max is a measurement of your body’s ability to take oxygen from the air you’re huffing and puffing, deliver it to your muscles, and make the energy you need during exercise. The more oxygen you can use per minute, the fitter you are, and the higher your VO2 max.
For reference, the average untrained adult will have a VO2 max of about 40 milliliters per kilogram of weight per minute (ml/kg/min). Highly trained endurance athletes can have VO2 max values that are about 10 milliliters higher. Your personal VO2 max depends on your genes and your age, as VO2max naturally declines over time.
But everyone can improve their VO2 max with training. Obviously, if you’re already an Olympic-caliber athlete, you don’t have as much room for improvement. But the rest of us can raise our VO2 max levels with interval training, or, if we’re not very active, just exercising at any intensity more frequently.
Either way, you’ll improve your longevity, said study author Elin Ekblom-Bak, Ph.D., of the Swedish School of Sport and Health Sciences in Stockholm in a press release.
“It is particularly important to note that an increase in fitness was beneficial regardless of the starting point,” said Ekblom-Bak in the release. “People in the lower range of VO2 max will reduce their risk even more (9 percent), while those at the upper end of VO2 max will reduce their risk by 1 percent.”
The most precise way to measure your VO2 max is in a laboratory where you run to complete exhaustion while wearing a breathing mask that captures and measures your every inhalation and exhalation. But you can get a good ballpark from online calculators like the one found at worldfitnesslevel.org that estimate your VO2 max based on your age, resting heart rate, weight, waist circumference, and physical activity level.
But you don’t have to know your number to get started. If you move more and get fitter, that means you’ve improved your VO2 max, and your longevity.