It’s not your BMI. It’s not your cholesterol. It’s also not your resting heart rate, your back squat max, your weight, your body fat percentage, your BMR, your RMR, your AT or even your SDTG. (Okay, I made that last one up; some of the alphabet was feeling left out.) It’s definitely not your shoe size (although that is important to know). So what is the number that researchers have found that is the single best indicator of your overall health? Your VO2 max.
Which is how I found myself awake in a puddle of cold sweat at three a.m. last night. I am not a person who normally dreads a workout but whether it was flashbacks of Middle School P.E. – my teacher used to chase me around the track throwing footballs at my head until I cried – or just my perfectionist nature, I was scared. See, first thing in the morning in Boot Camp, the Gym Buddies and I were taking the Cooper Fitness test, an assessment used to find your VO2 max. And would consequently tell me if I am a worthwhile human being. (Note to self: write post about how I give numbers too much power in my life.)
How To Get Yours (For Free!)
The most accurate way to measure your VO2 max is to do the Darth-Vader-masked-run-on-a-treadmill test but that’s spendy – expect to pay 150$ – 300$ – and I am nothing if not cheap. Also, the last time I did that test I almost* mooned the whole gym because I was running so hard my pants were falling down and I didn’t dare spare a hand to hold them up because I was too occupied trying to keep my hands from ripping that suffocating mask off my face and hurling it at the nearest trainer.
The Cooper Test goes like this: run as hard as you can for 12 minutes and then given the distance that you cover (in meters, naturally, we’re being scientific here remember?) and your age you can get a fairly accurate approximation of your VO2 max. It was exactly as fun as it sounds. Which is not at all. It was horrible pain. Maximal effort is bad enough in 20 second increments during Tabata sprints; it’s hellacious when you do it for 12 minutes. Upon finishing our run – in a heap, on the dirty gym floor – Gym Buddy Allison exclaimed, “My insides have never hurt so much before!” But our suffering was not in vain: I’m proud to say all the Gym Buddies scored in the highest rank for both the run and our VO2 maxes.
(We won’t talk about how this wasn’t good enough for me because it was lower than the last time I had my max measured even though that was to be expected as we lose about 1% of our VO2 max per year as we age. So I stewed about it all day until Allison told me to get a grip and learn to live with being “just superior”. Seriously, self, get on that “numbers mean too much to you” post.)
So why would anyone do such a thing to themselves just to get a number?
Your VO2 Max is your maximal oxygen uptake and reflects how well your body takes in and uses oxygen while you exercise. VO2 max “is widely accepted as the single best measure of cardiovascular fitness and maximal aerobic power. Absolute values of VO2 max are typically 40-60% higher in men than in women.” Your average man has a VO2 max of 45, while an average woman’s is 38. Just for comparison purposes (because who doesn’t like to compare suburban soccer moms with the world’s most elite athletes?), Greg LeMond’s is 92.5 and the highest ever recorded, belonging to a Scandinavian cross country skier for which my keyboard doesn’t even have the ability to type his name, is 96 – in his off season.
Danish researchers examined 86 men and 115 women, all between the ages of 23 and 27. They tested their VO2 max. They then studied their physical activity, blood pressure, blood lipids, body fat and smoking habits. As expected, a greater VO2 max was significantly correlated with a better cardiovascular profile. (And for your surprising research finding of the day: Physical activity was not correlated with a better cardiovascular profile.) This means that the higher the VO2 max, the lower the LDL cholesterol, body fat, and blood pressure. They also found that a higher VO2 max a correlates with a decrease in symptoms of the scary metabolic syndrome and is an “excellent predictor” of heart attack risk.
The take-home message from today’s workout is if you want to lower your cholesterol, blood pressure, body fat and bikini inhibitions, then your workouts need to be intense enough to increase your VO2 max. If better heart health is your goal, it isn’t enough just to be physically active (although physical activity of any intensity has numerous other benefits). You have to keep pushing yourself. Never get comfortable! And also: Remember that numbers are just tools to help you understand yourself better, they are not value judgments. (Repeat three times every morning.)
So do you know your VO2 max? How important are numbers to you? Are you able to look at them as just information or do they pack an emotional wallop too? Have you ever mooned anyone accidentally or on purpose??
*Not to be confused with the time I DID actually moon the whole gym thanks to a heavy pager from the childcare center attached to my weakly elasticized yoga pants. Good times!