Is it ever too late to get aerobically fit and improve your aerobic fitness level? We’d like to think that no matter when we start on our fitness journey that we can improve how fit we are from a cardiovascular perspective. One measure of a person’s fitness level is aerobic capacity or V02 max. V02 max is a measure of the body’s ability to deliver and utilize oxygen. An individual with a better aerobic capacity can send more oxygen to muscle tissue during exercise. Plus, the tissues can use it more efficiently to produce ATP in the presence of oxygen. Greater ability to produce ATP gives you more staying power during sub-maximal aerobic exercise. V02 max is measured in milliliters of oxygen used in a minute per kilogram of body weight. (ml/kg/min).
How do you know what your V02 max is? To find out, you have to visit a laboratory and run on a treadmill while wearing a breathing mask. A technician would measure the amount of oxygen you breathe in as they gradually increase the incline on the treadmill to force you to work harder. At some point, you would reach exhaustion as your ability to deliver more oxygen to your working muscles plateaus. You will also feel exhausted! Using oxygen consumption data and the point at which it peaked, the technician can calculate your VO2max.
Men typically have a higher V02 max relative to women. An untrained male has, on average, a V02 max in the 35 to 45 mL/kg/min range. An untrained female between 27 and 31 mL/kg/min range. Factors other than gender that impact V02 max include body size, age, and genetics partially determine a person’s aerobic capacity. For example, peak V02 max declines by 8 to 10% per decade of life. People at the upper end of the range have greater exercise endurance when performing moderate-intensity exercise. For example, a high V02 max gives long-distance runners an advantage. However, other factors impact performance during aerobic exercise such as exercise economy and efficiency. Mental factors also impact performance. So, you can’t necessarily assume that the person with the best aerobic capacity wins the race.
How Much Can You Improve Your Aerobic Fitness Capacity?
One of the benefits of endurance training is it can modestly boost VO2 max and, in turn, your body’s ability to deliver oxygen and utilize it efficiently to make ATP. This improves exercise endurance, but a higher V02 max is also linked with a lower risk of mortality independent of other factors. Finally, greater aerobic capacity gives you more stamina to do the things you enjoy. Studies show that endurance training can improve aerobic capacity by around 20%. A smaller percentage of people can make larger games in aerobic capacity through training while a small percentage get little or no improvement in VO to Max with training.
You might wonder how much age is a factor in how much you can boost V02 max? Is it ever too late to improve your aerobic fitness? Good news! Even if you don’t start training until mid-life or later, you may still have the capacity to improve your aerobic fitness. In one study published in the journal Circulation, adults with an average age of 53, were able to boost their aerobic capacity by an average of 18%. They also experienced improvements in the elasticity of their heart. Greater elasticity boosts the heart’s pumping capacity and, in turn, cardiovascular health. In fact, the degree in improvement, almost 25%, in cardiac elasticity surprised the researchers. Such is the power of exercise!
What about the control group? The control group did other forms of exercise including balance training, yoga, and strength training three times per week. Despite this, their aerobic capacity declined by 3% over the course of their three-year study. Their cardiac elasticity didn’t change either. In the study, aerobic exercise improved aerobic capacity but also limited the decline in V02 max that happens with age. The control group who didn’t do aerobic workouts became less aerobically fit.
What this study suggests is that even if we do other forms of exercise, we still need some form of aerobic training as we age to preserve or even improve aerobic capacity. As the study suggests, you can improve your aerobic fitness even if you don’t begin exercising until middle age. With aerobic capacity been linked with mortality risk, getting into good aerobic shape matters!
What if you are beyond middle-age? Can you still become fitter aerobically? One study asked healthy individuals between the ages of 55 and seven days to take part in a four-month aerobic fitness program. All of the individuals were previously sedentary. Over the course of the study, the individuals took part in aerobic activity that included brisk walking or jogging.
The results? Upon repeated VO2 Max testing the participants who did aerobic exercise increased their aerobic capacity by an average of 27%. That’s substantial! So, even if you’re a latecomer to the fitness game, you can still boost your fitness capacity and, potentially, lower your mortality rate since aerobic fitness is linked with a lower risk of dying prematurely. That’s a pretty sweet benefit, isn’t it?
Other Benefits of Aerobic Exercise
With age, insulin sensitivity declines and this increases the risk of metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes. Aerobic exercise improves insulin sensitivity and helps lower the risk of type 2 diabetes. Plus, exercise helps with weight control. That’s important since obesity is a risk factor for a variety of health problems, including cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and certain forms of cancer.
There’s another unexpected perk. Moderate amounts of aerobic exercise reduce inflammation and improve immune function. Immune function becomes more dysregulated with age and shifts toward increasing inflammation and a reduced immune response to unwelcome invaders like viruses. Aerobic exercise in moderation may help to reduce these negative effects.
The Bottom Line
It’s never too late to improve your aerobic capacity. Even if you have been sedentary most of your life, you can improve your fitness level and the health of your heart through regular aerobic training. That’s good news, isn’t it? But, don’t forget, you still need strength training to help offset the gradual loss of muscle tissue that happens with age. So, make sure you’re working up a sweat regularly!
J Sports Med Phys Fitness. 1990 Jun;30(2):163-72.
Guyton, A.; Hall, J.E. (2011). “Textbook of Medical Physiology, 12th Ed”. pp. 1035–1036.
The Washington Post. “Middle age is not too late to increase cardiac fitness, studies show”
Circulation. 2018;137: 1549–1560.
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