It’s always nice to have confirmation that you’re improving your aerobic fitness as a result of your training. You may have subjective signs like not getting winded when you walk up several flights of stairs, but what if you want to know how your aerobic capacity compares to others?
The most accurate way to measure your cardiovascular fitness and see how you compare to others in your age group is to take a sub-maximal or maximal fitness test at a fitness center or a university. If you don’t want to go to that much trouble, there are also simple tests you can do at home to get a better idea of how fit you are aerobically.
How Cardiovascular Fitness Testing Works
Sub-Maximal Fitness Testing
If you were to go to a fitness center to get fitness testing, one way they could gauge your aerobic fitness is through a sub-maximal fitness test. This test typically involves cycling on an ergometer. To do the test, you would begin by pedaling against a specific work load. As you pedal, the work load would gradually increase while your heart rate is closely monitored. As you continued pedaling the work load increases until you’re exercising at 75% to 85% of your maximal heart rate. Your measured heart rate at each point can then be plotted against work load to get an estimate of your aerobic capacity.
This test takes about 15 minutes and requires minimal equipment although you need a trained fitness professional to conduct it. You can also do a sub-maximal fitness test on a treadmill instead of a cycle ergometer.
Maximal Fitness Testing
You can also measure your aerobic capacity or V02 max by through a maximal exercise test. This test requires a specially equipped facility but it’s also more accurate than a submaximal fitness test. It’s “high tech” too since you have to wear a mouthpiece and nose clip during the test and are hooked up to a metabolic cart to measure oxygen uptake.
While wearing a mouthpiece and nose clip, you would begin pedaling an ergometer or running on a treadmill as the incline or resistance is gradually increased. As the load increases, you would eventually reach a point where you’re unable to continue. The oxygen uptake measured at the point of maximal work can be used to calculate V02 max, an indicator of aerobic capacity.
Simpler Ways to Estimate Your Aerobic Capacity
Maximal and sub-maximal fitness testing requires you to go to a facility and have a fitness professional conduct the test. If you don’t want to do that, another option is to do the Rockport one-mile walking test. This test of aerobic capacity is based on the concept that knowing your maximal heart rate during the test and taking into account gender, weight and age – you can estimate your V02 max. It’s a good option if you have joint issues and can’t run. This test works best if you use a heart rate monitor, but you can get a reasonable estimate of your aerobic capacity without one.
To do the Rockport one-mile walking test, you’ll need a track to test on. A mile is usually four laps around the innermost loop of the track. Warm up for 5 minutes. Then walk four loops around the track, equivalent to a mile, as fast as you can. At the end of the course, immediately take your heart rate for 10 seconds and multiply by 6. If you have a high level of cardiovascular fitness your heart rate will drop rapidly so you’ll need to measure immediately and for a short period of time to get accurate results. You can find Rockport one-mile walking test calculators online to plug in your values and get your estimated V02 max.
If you’re up for a run, another way is to do the 12-minute run test developed by Dr. Kenneth Cooper. After warming up for 5 to 10 minutes, run as fast as you can for 12 minutes. Record the distance you cover during this time. You can estimate your V02 max using this formula:
V02 max = (35.97 x miles) – 11.29.
You can also find online calculators to plug in your distance and calculate your V02 max automatically.
What Does Your Aerobic Capacity Say about You?
V02 max refers to the maximal amount of oxygen you can deliver to your working muscles during exercise. It’s the point at which oxygen consumption no longer rises despite an increase in work load. V02 max varies with age, gender and body size and is partially determined by genetics. Gifted endurance athletes usually have a high V02 max and a greater proportion of slow-twitch muscle fibers, fibers that are geared towards aerobic energy production and resistant to fatigue.
Disappointed with your aerobic capacity? Fortunately, you can improve V02 max through training by an average of around 25%. Through training, your heart becomes better at delivering oxygen to muscles and your muscles become more efficient at producing ATP aerobically to fuel exercise. Mitochondria inside muscle cells that produce ATP increase in number and size in response to endurance training.
The Bottom Line?
The Rockport one-mile walking test and the 12-minute running test are two simple tests you can use to estimate your aerobic capacity. They aren’t as accurate as sub-maximal or maximal fitness testing in a controlled setting but they’ll give you a pretty good idea of how aerobically fit you are.
Med Sci Sports Exerc. 1987 Jun;19(3):253-9.
Exercise Physiology for Health, Fitness and Performance. Second edition. 2003.
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