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Your Fitness Age

A Norwegian research group, CERG, recently published a paper that drew from careful measurements taken in a large, observational study, looking for ways to estimate a factor called VO2 max — the maximum amount of oxygen that the lungs can use during exercise. This probably sounds pretty arcane, but it’s a useful measurement of physical fitness, and it’s really labor-intensive to measure. It can also be risky to measure in people who are not healthy, because the standard testing method involves, well, just seeing how hard someone can work and measuring how much oxygen they use.

CERG parlayed their research into an online calculator, first called a “real age” test and now available at a website called World Fitness Level. By taking some measurements and answering a few questions, you can get an estimate of your VO2 max without getting up from your chair. The calculator compares your result to the predicted results for normal people in your age group and compares you to the age group whose result matches yours. A highly fit 70 year old, for example, could have a VO2 max consistent with a 30 year old.

How much does this matter?

Your specific VO2 max number doesn’t have the same impact as, say, your bodyfat percentage. Some people can improve it with performance training, but it is largely genetic, and the same training program may show changes in some people and no changes at all in others. That doesn’t mean the others didn’t benefit from training — exercise has many positive benefits on health, and outside the normal range, VO2 max is of interest mostly to competitive athletes and physicians.

The calculator is still fun and interesting, and CERG offers an option to share more information about general health risks for its database. The results page invites you to follow a link for information to improve your fitness (or, if you are already fit, improve it even further), but this site does not give any personalized fitness advice. The recommendations they make are simply a basic 7-week program geared toward sedentary people. Its program has a nice mix of strength and cardio, but it places too much emphasis on high-intensity intervals. Particularly if you are just starting a new commitment to exercise, you can benefit from their program with only low- and medium-intensity work, or by limiting high-intensity work to one day a week.

Photo by Rick Rickman, from his book, The Wonder Years: Portraits of Athletes Who Never Slow Down.

What is your Fitness Age?

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