You Don't Need High-Tech Tests to Figure Out Your Degree of Fitness

VO2 max test
Lenny Bernstein takes a VO2 max test, which involves breathing into a tube that allows exhaled air to be analyzed. (Michael Temchine for The Washington Post)
By Lenny Bernstein
Tuesday, June 23, 2009

I've never paid much attention to the number salad of statistics that experts use to measure fitness. For one thing, I'm convinced that "body mass index" and its ilk were devised by the same people who predict how much money I'll need in retirement: In both cases, it's just too depressing to do the math.

I have a heart rate monitor, but I've never used it. My bathroom scale tells me I'm overweight. I keep track of time and distance in a running log, and I really don't need to know much more.

Nevertheless, when my editor asked me to sort out the confusing array of fitness tests increasingly available to those of us older than 50, I was curious to see what was out there.

Now that I've returned from the University of Maryland's Department of Kinesiology with a thick folder of results and explanations, I will say this: There is a special place in hell for people who suggest that others have their body fat tested.

* * *

The exercise physiology testing lab on Maryland's College Park campus looks much as you would expect. Computers and other equipment share space with a treadmill and stationary bikes in a room of painted cinder block. In a small, curtained area, doctoral student Nathan Jenkins attaches electrodes to my chest, and, later, physician Barbara Albert asks me a battery of questions about my health to make sure it is safe to give me a VO2 max test, which will push me to the brink of exhaustion.

VO2 max measures how well your body takes in oxygen, transports it to your blood, circulates it to tissues and uses it to produce energy. It tests the capacity of your lungs, heart, circulatory system and muscles and is considered the most accurate gauge of aerobic fitness. Seven-time Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong hit 85 milliliters of oxygen per kilogram of body weight per minute, one of the highest scores ever recorded.

After warming up, I stand on a treadmill, wires running out from under my shirt and held to my abdomen by a Velcro strap. They lead to the ECG machine that Albert will use to monitor my heart throughout the test. After fiddling with the equipment and shaving away ever wider swaths of my chest hair so the electrodes stay put, Jenkins and postdoctoral fellow Sarah Witkowski (both of whom look like they would ace this test) fit me with a large plastic piece of headgear. It holds a wide tube that will route my exhalations into plastic bags for analysis.

A clamp is placed over my nose so I can breathe only through my mouth. Jenkins cranks up the treadmill to a 14-degree angle and sets it at 3.8 mph, a brisk walking pace on a sharp incline. Every two minutes, he raises it by two degrees, and when we reach 18 degrees, he increases the speed to 4 mph.

Witkowski has assured me that, as a recreational runner, I should fare well on this test. We would soon find out.

The test begins. Every 30 seconds, the team asks if I can continue. I answer with prearranged hand signals. Witkowski takes periodic blood pressure readings with a cuff attached to my left arm, and Albert monitors my heartbeat and other functions.

After seven minutes and 30 seconds, with the treadmill at 20 degrees, I am a dripping, panting mess, unable to continue another half-minute. My heart rate has reached 164 beats per minute -- almost exactly the average maximum heart rate for my age. Jenkins lowers the treadmill back to zero, and I cool down at a slow walk.

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