VO2 Max Charts: What You Need To Know (2024)

A person’s maximal oxygen consumption, also known as VO2 max—a measurement of how well the body takes in and uses oxygen while exercising at a high intensity—is a useful statistic to gauge fitness and cardiovascular health. A higher VO2 max score means the heart and lungs are transporting more oxygen-rich blood to the muscles, increasing energy production and maximizing athletic performance.

Several factors can impact a person’s VO2 max score—and VO2 max alone does not determine someone’s athletic potential. Still, knowing a person’s VO2 max score can help determine a person’s fitness level while giving a baseline upon which to improve.

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What Is the VO2 Max Chart?

The VO2 max chart categorizes VO2 max scores by age group to show averages of maximal oxygen consumption during exercise in each age range. Men and women have separate VO2 max charts. Since women have lower muscle mass compared to men, their VO2 max ranges are listed separately, according to Nieca Goldberg, M.D., a cardiologist, medical director of Atria New York City and a clinical associate professor of medicine at New York University’s Grossman School of Medicine.
Scores are ranked in percentile categories including:

  • Excellent (95th percentile)
  • Good (90th percentile)
  • Above average (75th percentile)
  • Average (50th percentile)
  • Below average (25th percentile)
  • Poor (10th percentile)
  • Very poor (5th percentile)

Ranges for these categories are generally adjusted based on 10- or 5-year age groups. It’s worth noting there’s no one official VO2 max chart to reference, and the data for these charts can come from various sources, such as the Cooper Institute and Fitness Registry and the Importance of Exercise: A National DataBase (FRIEND). While there may be some variances in wording and categories between charts, the VO2 max chart’s overall purpose of providing data on how a person’s cardiovascular and aerobic performance compares within their age range remains the same. For those interested in referencing a VO2 max chart, Garret Seacat, head coach and owner of Absolute Endurance, recommends using the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) chart.

Who Might Use the VO2 Max Chart?

Although it’s often serious athletes who use the VO2 max chart to gauge their fitness, VO2 max scores have shown to be a predictor of longevity in the general population—the American Heart Association published a statement recommending the regular assessment of cardiorespiratory fitness using VO2 max.

Dr. Goldberg recommends using VO2 max in clinical practice to aid in the differentiation of heart symptoms from pulmonary or lung symptoms. “An example would be in the evaluation of shortness of breath,” she says. “Shortness of breath could represent heart or lung disease or both. This type of stress [test] allows us to measure the difference.”

Still, there’s a reason it’s so commonly used by athletes. “This test is the most accurate at assessing fitness,” Dr. Goldberg says.

Seacat uses VO2 max testing to give his current clients an objective look at how they compare with others in their age range. He cautions, however, against relying too heavily on the score. While it can be interesting to see how a person’s VO2 max compares to some of the world’s top athletes (like runner Steve Prefontaine’s 84 or cyclist Chris Froome’s 84.6), it can also be disheartening for someone who does not train at an professional level to see their score in comparison to professional athletes.

“Testing your VO2 max is best used by elite athletes to know if they will have what it takes to compete at a certain level,” he says.

Even among the professional athletes, VO2 max doesn’t tell the whole story. “It is only a small snapshot into your fitness,” Seacat says, and suggests testing lactate threshold as well. “By testing the lactate threshold, we can get a better picture of what percentage of your VO2 max threshold is being reached. If there’s a large gap, this will let you know there is still significant room for improvement.”

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How to Use the VO2 Max Chart

Unless a doctor has specifically ordered the test in a medical facility, an individual will usually need to visit a sports lab or sports medicine facility for VO2 max score testing. Tests typically take place on a treadmill or bike—depending on the preference of the test administrator—with a face mask and heart rate monitor fitted to the individual being tested.

“You will likely be using something like a full mask that covers your nose and mouth, or a tube that goes into your mouth, like a scuba snorkel and a nose plug,” Seacat says. “Before putting on the mask, take a quick drink, because you won’t be able to take another for the next 10 to 20 minutes of the test.”

It’s important to keep the face mask fitted to the individual’s face so all breathing can be captured and analyzed. Some VO2 max testing facilities also require those being tested to wear electrodes and a blood pressure cuff, for further data collection.

When equipment is in place, the test begins with a 5-minute warm up. After five minutes, the test administrator will gradually increase the level of difficulty on the device being used (for example, increasing the resistance on a stationary bike or the speed on a treadmill). This will happen once every minute until the person being tested reaches exhaustion.

“Remember, this isn’t a ‘go until you’re uncomfortable’ test,” says Seacat. “It’s a ‘go as hard as you physically can until your legs collapse’ test. Give it all you have! If your oxygen exchange ratio or VO2 max number are still going up and you stop before they have peaked and flattened out, you likely didn’t perform a good test.”

For the most accurate score, testing should take place in a lab with a trained professional monitoring and recording results. “The biggest misconceptions about VO2 max are now coming from fitness watches guessing at your VO2,” adds Seacat. “The amount of people I’ve talked with who claim to have a VO2 max in the 60s or higher because their Apple Watch or Garmin Fenix told them so is quite staggering.”

That being said, there’s nothing wrong with using a smartwatch to find a VO2 score if lab resources aren’t available. Keep in mind, however, the score provided by a smartwatch will likely be less accurate and may serve better as general fitness knowledge.

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Interpreting VO2 Max Results

VO2 max results allow an individual to see how their score compares to others in their age range. For example, a 43-year-old man with a VO2 max of 37 is considered “average.” For women, that same score for a 46-year-old woman, lands firmly in the “good” range.

Despite the scale readings, it’s vital to keep your score in perspective. While a high VO2 max score does often correlate to improved athletic performance, that number on its own is not a sign of fitness—or lack of, Seacat says. “While in sedentary individuals it can be used to show potential health outcomes, from a fitness perspective it is more of a look at how your current cardiovascular system is performing,” he says. Some chart averages also focus more on activity level than age, which may provide helpful comparisons for more sedentary individuals.

What Impacts VO2 Max Results

Men and women have different VO2 max norms, but gender isn’t the only factor that can affect a person’s score. “The things that affect VO2 max are age, heredity, training and body composition,” Dr. Goldberg says.
Additional factors that might impact a VO2 score include:

  • Age: Research shows cardiorespiratory fitness decreases with age, and one study specifically shows VO2 scores decline up to 6% per decade, then up to 20% after the age of 70[1]Jackson AS, Sui X, Hébert JR, Church TS, Blair SN. Role of lifestyle and aging on the longitudinal change in cardiorespiratory fitness. Arch Intern Med. 2009;169(19):1781-1787. .
  • Heredity: Genes may also play a role, as research notes certain genetic variants to be associated with VO2 max trainability.
  • Body composition: “The easiest way to improve your VO2 max? Dropping weight,” Seacat says. “VO2 max is expressed in milliliters, kilograms, minutes or the amount of oxygen (in milliliters) to the weight of the individual (in kilograms) to the amount of time (in minutes). Dropping a few extra pounds will help move your VO2 numbers in the right direction.” Keep in mind, a higher VO2 score doesn’t automatically equate to being in better shape.
  • Training: “VO2 max can improve with exercise training,” Dr. Goldberg says. Studies show training leads to oxygen being transmitted more effectively throughout the body, which leads to improved use of oxygen[2]Scribbans TD, Vecsey S, Hankinson PB, Foster WS, Gurd BJ. The Effect of Training Intensity on VO2max in Young Healthy Adults: A Meta-Regression and Meta-Analysis. Int J Exerc Sci. 2016;9(2):230-247. Published 2016 Apr 1. .
  • Altitude: Performing a VO2 max test at elevation can also impact results. “Less oxygen in the air can lower the numbers by about 5% every 5,000 feet of altitude gained,” Seacat says.

Can Your VO2 Max Change?

VO2 max scores are not permanent and can improve, according to Seacat. “VO2 max can change and frequently does for athletes as they become more fit.”

High intensity interval training has been shown to improve VO2 max scores, as opposed to strictly continuous exercise, such as running or cycling at a comfortable pace for a period of time[3]Bacon AP, Carter RE, Ogle EA, Joyner MJ. VO2max trainability and high intensity interval training in humans: a meta-analysis. PLoS One. 2013 Sep 16;8(9):e73182. . However, Seacat notes patience is required.

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“Training at the highest intensity is one of the only ways to improve your VO2 max, but it isn’t going to happen in a week,” he says. “You will need a few months of intense intervals at one to three minutes in length to start seeing improvements.”

Monitoring a VO2 max score is just one of many tools that can be used to improve overall fitness. “VO2 max only gives us half of the picture of your fitness and is best thought of as a look at your potential,” Seacat says. “Factors that also play a role are proper nutrition, mental status, lactate threshold and proper running technique or bike fit.”

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VO2 Max Charts: What You Need To Know (2024)
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