Does VO2 max hold the secret to eternal youth?

vo2 max
VO2 max is an important measure to determine physical fitness and how well your cardiovascular system is conditioned. Typically, the a VO2 max test is done at a gym or sports lab using a treadmill, stationary bike, or rowing machine and the intensity of the exercise is graded, or calibrated and increased over time.  A mask or breathing snorkel is worn by the exerciser and connected to a bulky oxygen reading machine that measures several factors that influence oxygen delivery and oxygen demand. VO2 max occurs when your body can no longer utilize oxygen and switches to anaerobic energy sources and the higher the fitness level, the higher the VO2 Max score. 

Globally, people’s aerobic conditioning (Vo2 max) is deteriorating at an alarmingly fast rate. So much so, that if current trends continue, more than one billion people will be obese by the end of this decade.

Low VO2 Max indicates poor cardio fitness, and this means the body can’t take in and use oxygen very efficiently, so physical exercise is a struggle. Heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, hypercholesterolemia, and early mortality are linked to low Vo2 max.

The good news is that exercise can reverse VO2 max decline– essentially helping people live longer as their bodies become more efficient at taking in and using oxygen.

Read on to find out how raising VO2 max can improve cardiovascular function, boost immunity to diease, reduce inflammation and improve brain function.

VO2 max declines with age, but training can slow it down.

A sedentary lifestyle leads to a low VO2 max since inactive people tend to have less muscle mass and fewer mitochondria, which are the tiny engines inside cells that convert oxygen into energy.  In contrast, those who engage in sports involving multiple muscle groups and repeated maximal aerobic efforts, such as cross-country skiing, cycling, swimming, rowing, and medium to long-distance running, tend to have a higher VO2 max result due to enhanced muscle mass/ more mitochondria.  Research has found that people with a higher VO2 max live longer, in part because higher VO2 max correlates with a lower risk of serious disease. In contrast, people with a low VO2 max result are at a higher risk of heart disease and certain types of cancer, including breast, lung, and gastrointestinal cancers.  As we age, our baseline VO2 max naturally declines. The average man in his 20s or 30s scores around 40, while the average woman scores in the low 30s, then VO2 max levels decrease after the age of 30 at a rate of about 10% per decade. This decrease in oxygen consumption rate has a detrimental effect on our health and well-being as we get older. In fact – VO2 max has been shown to be a strong and independent predictor of quality of life, longevity and health, regardless of sex or race. While part of your result is written in your DNA, the rest pretty much comes down to how much you move. Therefore aging (and longevity) can be manipulated to your advantage by getting active more regularly. 

It pays to move about.

Staying fit has a lot of benefits. These include an increase in heart and lung function, muscle strength and endurance, as well as a decrease in resting heart rate and blood pressure. All of these changes contribute to a healthier life. But why is that? Cardiorespiratory fitness, measured by VO2 max, has a big impact on how we feel. This is because skeletal muscles rely on oxygen (aerobic energy supply), which adjusts to a person’s metabolic needs. In the absence of aerobic supply, lactate gets produced, causing fatigue. During respiration, oxygen is transported from the air to the alveoli and the bloodstream and oxygenated blood is pumped by the heart to the mitochondria inside the muscles. These skeletal muscles make up about 40% of a humans total body weight and shrink by 3 – 10% every decade after 25. Lifestyle factors like regular physical activity and good nutrition can greatly influence the extent of these changes. Recent research on the elderly even demonstrates that in old age we can increase our VO2 max to levels found in much younger people (15 – 20%).  In essence, this means that you can reverse the aging process – all you need to do to get there, is move your body.   

Getting older is an inevitable process that we all must go through, but physical activity is one of the keys to maximum health and longevity. And even if you’ve been inactive for a while, it’s never too late to improve aerobic and anaerobic capacity, strength, and muscle mass. 

Having a fitness age decades younger than your actual age feels great – but another benefit is that it impacts your lifespan.

In fact, a low VO2 max predicts early death better than other standard factors like obesity, high cholesterol or heavy smoking. Thus, an active body may be a better predictor of longevity than chronological age.

Healthy body, healthy mind

It is not just the body that shows signs of aging. As VO2 max levels drop, the mind is also affected. We don’t often associate exercise with cognitive skills – but exercise plays an important part in brain function as we age too.

Various studies have linked higher VO2 max scores to lower dementia and Alzheimer’s risk.

This is because when we move the muscles in our body, proteins are produced in our bloodstream, which then travel to our brain.  These proteins (known as myokines) play an integral role in high-level cognitive processes such as problem-solving, dreaming, and creativity – and they are only released when our muscles experience tension. The brain needs these new connections to form new ideas and solve complex problems. However, if we don’t move our bodies, these processes don’t happen, our brains are left feeling foggy or dull. In other words, an inactive lifestyle can leave you feeling like you don’t have much mental clarity. You might have trouble thinking clearly or recalling simple facts, keeping track of appointments, and carrying on a conversation. Other symptoms include insomnia, depressed moods, and high stress.

An easy way to ensure a long and healthy life 

VO2 max is an important indicator of fitness level and can be improved or even reversed through regular exercise. Anyone looking to improve their mental and physical health and longevity should consider including regular exercise in their routine and may benefit from VO2 max testing to track their progress. By exercising regularly, we can slow the decline in VO2 max  and in some cases, we can even attain levels comparable to much younger individuals.  There is no question that physical activity is one of the keys to maximum health and longevity. There are a lot of benefits of living an active lifestyle, including lower blood pressure, a healthier cardiovascular system, stronger bones, weight management, stress relief, protection against oxidative stress, and better moods. So in conclusion, the best way to reduce your chances of premature death, as well as remaining young in mind and body, would be to stay physically fit as long as you can. 



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