Most of us would say being fit is a good thing – but exactly how fit do we need to be ? The answer – like most things in life – tends to be ‘it depends’. If your goal is to improve your athletic performance then definitely more is better (well trained world class athletes tend to have 2-3x higher fitness than the average untrained person).
However if you’re someone like me who does not want to compete in the Olympics (!) but does want to stay healthy, then is there a fitness level you could target? What is a healthy fitness level … lets see if science can give us an answer.
Fitness = Maximum Oxygen Uptake
As I had defined in an earlier post, fitness or more precisely cardio-respiratory fitness is the ability of the body to supply oxygen to muscles during times of increased physical activity. Fitness is typically expressed as VO2Max, i.e. the maximum oxygen your body can uptake during structured exercise. And usually estimated by measuring oxygen uptake while progressively increasing running or biking speed until the person reaches maximum oxygen uptake (commonly called a “stress test” or maximal test). Athletes typically have higher VO2Max numbers (Norwegian cyclist & junior world champion Oskar Svendson has one of the highest reported fitness numbers / VO2Max of 97.5 ml/kg/min). VO2Max is typically expressed in units of ml/kg/min which basically translates to the maximum ml of oxygen per kg of body weight the body can utilize in a minute. Of course higher VO2Max by itself doesn’t guarantee a better race outcome – motivation, training status, efficiency and a host of other factors matter. But having lower fitness certainly makes it more important to work on the rest.
11 METs = Healthy Fitness Level
From a health perspective, fitness is usually expressed as METs (Metabolic Equivalents) – a more clinically meaningful metric – both to understand how healthy the person is as well as to determine how much exercise intensity the person can cope with. Essentially 1 MET =~3.5 VO2 units, which basically is the amount of oxygen you need to sit & watch TV! METs also provide an easy way to compare the relative intensity of different activities (the chart on the left is adapted from lists created by the CDC & ACSM). The intensities are directly comparable – so sex is therefore almost 5 times as intense as watching TV. And your fitness needs to be at least 6 METs for you to be able to have sex, safely!
This gets even more relevant when you look at people with different fitness levels and their health outcomes. One of the seminal studies that looked at the relationship between fitness, cardio-vascular health & all-cause mortality was conducted by a group led by Saturo Kodama. They combined data from 33 different studies that covered 100,000+ subjects and segmented people into different levels of fitness.
In categorical analyses, individuals with low CRF (<7.9 METs in MAC) had a substantially higher risk of all-cause mortality and CHD/CVD compared with those with intermediate and high CRF (7.9-10.8 and ≥10.9 METs in MAC, respectively) … These analyses suggest that a minimal CRF of 7.9 METs may be important for significant prevention of all-cause mortality and CHD/CVD
Those with fitness of less than 7.9 METs had a 40% higher risk of mortality than those with intermediate fitness (7.9 – 10.8 METs) and 70% higher risk than those with high fitness (10.9+ METs). And every 1 MET increase in fitness tends to result in ~15% improvement in cardiovascular health. Based on the Kodama findings & other studies, I would categorize fitness into five zones (chart on the right). So increasing fitness beyond 7.9 METs yields dramatic improvement in health outcomes. And a fitness level of 11 METs or higher would be considered healthy.
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