What Is Aerobic Capacity and How Can You Improve It?

Aerobic Capacity

What kind of metrics do you use to track your workouts? Common measurements like steps taken, distance walked, minutes active, heart rate and more might not offer a full picture as to your actual fitness. To get a better idea of how effective your exercise has been, you need to measure your aerobic capacity.

If you’re like most people, “aerobic capacity” isn’t what springs to mind when determining fitness. However, this can be an enlightening measurement of your fitness, regardless of your size, age or weight. Here’s what you need to know about aerobic capacity.

What is aerobic capacity?

Aerobic capacity is how much oxygen your body can use at any given time, and how effective its usage is. This is important because the more oxygen your body uses, the better it can fuel your muscles. When you increase your aerobic capacity, you can improve your fitness and longevity.

As you might already know, our lungs bring oxygen to our blood vessels. In turn, the oxygenated blood travels to the heart. The heart moves the oxygenated blood to our tissues and muscles, where it can be used to produce fuel for the muscles.

You may have heard of this process referred to as VO2 Max, or the maximum volume of oxygen your body can use at any given time. This is still the same concept, so don’t get confused.

Measuring your aerobic capacity can be accomplished in two different ways. First, you can use wearables like Fitbits, to calculate an estimated aerobic capacity measurement. This is based on your heart rate, age, sex, weight and other factors. However, the estimate isn’t necessarily accurate.

For a truly accurate reading, you’ll need a calorimetry test. This is a test in which a user wears a mask to measure their breathing during a workout. The workout increasingly intensifies. These can be done at sports labs, although hospitals and universities near you may also offer the service. Most people are happy with using a wearable to measure their fitness, but athletes may want to invest in calorimetry measurements.

How to improve your aerobic capacity

Any exercise will help improve your aerobic capacity, but studies have shown that high intensity interval training (HIIT) is the best way to make bigger strides. HIIT commonly mixes strength training with cardio. The exercises are performed in short, intense intervals, with short breaks in between.

Cross-training (mixing up your type and style of workout), HIIT and sprinting are all great ways to improve your aerobic capacity. Again, however, anything will help: if you’re out of shape and looking to start a new exercise program, don’t feel pressured to jump straight into a rigorous new workout. Even daily lunchtime walks will improve your aerobic capacity and overall health.

Do I need to measure my aerobic capacity?

Does anyone really need to measure their aerobic capacity? There are plenty of other health markers you can use to judge your fitness: weight, body fat percentage, endurance and more. A person can certainly maintain a healthy lifestyle without stopping by a sports lab for calorimetry tests. Using wearables is a great way to keep track of your progress without going overboard.

Professional athletes—and people who are strongly focused on improving their fitness—should consider getting tested regularly at sports labs. Aerobic capacity, along with other measurements, can give a complete picture of your fitness.

The key to using aerobic capacity is simply to track your progress. You’ll know whether your clothes fit better and those uphill walks are less torturous. It’s easy to check numbers on the scale, measure your heart rate and how often you’ve worked out recently. When you measure your aerobic capacity, however, you’re coming up with a baseline to improve upon. Instead of focusing on whether the measurement is “good” or “bad,” you should use it as a jumping-off point to improve your capacity. Remember, all it tells you is how well your body is utilizing oxygen: all progress is good progress.

The bottom line

Measuring aerobic capacity won’t make or break your fitness routine, but it can be a useful way to track your fitness progress. Most people can get a good estimate from their fitness wearables, but dedicated athletes might want to have theirs professionally tracked.

The better your aerobic capacity, the better your body is able to fuel your muscles during a workout. Any form of exercise, especially cardiovascular and HIIT, will improve yours. It might just be the easiest fitness goal you’ve ever made.

Abhishek Chauhan

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