I'll Try Anything Once: Fitness Testing

I almost died trying to find out if I was physically fit.
Publish date:
October 12, 2011
health, exercise, failure, physical fitness, fitness test, suffocation, vo2 max test, M

Most of my life, I’ve been pretty sedentary. When other friends went on long runs, I curled up on the couch with a book. When people looked up their gym class schedule, I looked up the TV schedule. When girls talked about how amazing their yoga instructor was, I rolled my eyes. (OK, I still do that last part.)

But a few years ago, something changed. It started with snowboarding, then surfing, then tennis lessons and long hikes. Next thing I knew, I was spinning, bouncing, and even attempting to run.

Even when a terrible snowboarding crash ended with a spinal compression fracture, I didn’t slow down. (Literally, I was on the mountain the next day and in spin class the day after that.) I definitely wasn’t “exercising” to be thinner (I actually weigh the most of my entire life right now), but instead, was trying to get outside and play as much as possible because it made me happier. WHICH IS SO GROSS, BUT TRUE.

And while I couldn’t necessarily see how exercising was affecting me physically, I thought certainly I must be in the best shape of my life. I mean, that's how exercise works, right?

Which is how I ended up at San Francsico State University for Aerobic Fitness Testing. OK, I’ll be honest. I’m still not totally sure how all of this works, but basically, I showed up at the Exercise Physiology Lab to have them measure my aerobic capacity, or “the ability of an athlete’s cardiovascular system to absorb and utilize oxygen.” (And yes, that quoted part is lifted straight from their website.) The VO2max Test, as they call it, would measure my maximal oxygen consumption rate, which, in turn, would provide an indication of my maximal aerobic capacity.

In short: Was I in good shape or not?

When I arrived the SFSU Exercise Physiology Lab, I was a little worried. I’d refrained from any vigorous exercise the previous day (as requested), but also feared that the fact that I’d refrained from any vigorous exercise for over three weeks (at the insistance of my physical therapist who told me that unless I just STOPPED already, my back would never ever get better) was going to affect my test results. I AM COMPETITIVE, especially with myself. (I don’t know why I am yelling. I have an all caps problem. FACT.)

I met Dr. Matt Lee, who was super friendly and not just because he’s from Louisiana (or maybe that is the only reason why, but whatever, I love a good Southerner) and his student assistant Sasha, who took my height and weight and asked if I'd like to take the test on a treadmill or bike. Given my obsession with spin class, I chose the latter. Obvi.

“So all you have to do is ride the bike and we’ll increase the workload until you can no longer continue. That’s usually anywhere between eight and 15 minutes.”

I had this.

“And while you’re doing that, we’ll also check your blood pressure every two minutes.”

Bring it.

“So we’ll just put this on your head…”

They held out a crazy contraption that looked like the headgear I was forced to wear in second grade, but instead of a metal face bow, there was a huge plastic tube hanging off of it.

“And you’ll put the tube completely in your mouth.”

This, to the girl who hyperventilates and gags when the dentist puts the plastic X-ray film in her mouth.

“And then we’ll plug your nose.”

Looks like someone should have done a little research ahead of time!

Seeing the look on my face, they reassured me, “You can stop whenever you want.”

As if.

So they put the contraption on my head, stuck the enormous tube in my teeny tiny mouth, and plugged my nose. I was already panicking and I hadn’t even started pedaling yet.

They gave me a few minutes to get the hang of breathing under those circumstances (which is a total lie because breathing under those circumstances is not something one could ever get the hang of), and then had me start pedaling on the bike. I was told to try to keep it at around 60 RPMs, which was totally easy.

Until it wasn’t.

I don’t know how to explain it because, in hindsight, I feel like I could have pedaled for hours. But the harder they made it, the harder it was to breathe. Until finally, 12 minutes into the test, I thought I would die if I had to have that contraption in my mouth for even one more second.

I made the "I'm finished" signal and got ready to yank that thing off my head, throw it on the ground (or politely hand it to someone, whichever), and take a huge breath of amazing delicious air.

“OK. You’re done."


"Now just keep the tube in for two more minutes while you cool-down.”

Let's just say it's a good thing I was unable to breathe or talk.

Of course, as I cooled down, I caught my breath, so by the time the contraption came out of my mouth (and so much spit with it; it’s basically impossible to swallow while that thing is in your mouth—that’s what she said), I no longer wanted to yell, “You sadist freaks!” at them. Well fine, I wanted to, but I didn’t. I’m trying to take this “journalism” thing seriously.

Dr. Lee then printed out a bunch of math-looking things (What? I went to art school.) and started explaining equations to me. I nodded and smiled politely, pretending like I had any idea what he was talking about.

And then he broke the news.

“So, your maximal oxygen uptake is 34.3 ml/kg/min. Which, as you can see on this chart is...right here..."

He pointed to a number next to the word "average." AVERAGE! OK, not good, but I can live with that. Average. Normal. Ordinary. Perfectly normal.

"Now that says 'Average,' but it should actually say 'Below Average.'"


“Basically, you have the maximal oxygen uptake of a sedentary person.”

And then I started crying. KIDDING. I didn’t cry until I got to my car. EW. No I did not. I thanked them both for their for their time, went to my car, drove to the track, and ran as fast as I could for 20 minutes. Which, I sadly realized, wasn’t very fast at all.

If you’re in SF, you can take the VO2 Max Test and other cool tests (like having your body fat measured in a device called “The Bod Pod” that calculates body composition by measuring the volume of air displaced by your body) at the SFSU Exercise Physiology Lab. If you’re an athlete, the VO2 Max Test is definitely an awesome way to track your aerobic fitness over time and see if your fitness levels are where you want them to be.

Oh, and if you want more information, here’s a quick interview I did with Dr. Lee over email:

What's the weirdest and/or most interesting thing you've discovered while giving someone the V02max Test?

It’s not really weird, but one time someone showed signs of heart disease.

Why do you recommend people take this test?

For people beginning an exercise program it can be a good way to track aerobic fitness changes over time and to compare themselves to established norms. The same can be said for serious athletes. Sometimes we get high-level cyclists or runners who just want to see if their fitness level is where they think it should be.

For someone like me, who didn't do very well on the test, what course of action would you recommend?

Since VO2max is a measure of aerobic fitness, I would suggest strategies to increase it. Obviously the best way to increase aerobic fitness is to do regular aerobic activity. The principle of progressive overload applies here (just as weight lifting), thus gradual increases in aerobic exercise intensity, duration, and frequency have been shown to increase aerobic fitness.

Are there any other factors that could affect this test? For example: I work out pretty regularly and yet didn't do well. Could this be an indication that there's something else going on?

For a healthy person, the major factors influencing VO2max are training volume, genetics and age. Some people are just not genetically predisposed to having a high level of aerobic fitness, while others seem to be genetically gifted. Also as I mentioned yesterday, familiarization with the testing procedures can play a role. The more comfortable/familiar you are during the test, the better you will generally do. Lastly, test modality can play a role. Generally scores are higher on treadmill tests because you are using more muscle mass to exercise.

What do you miss most about Louisiana? :)


Thank you to Dr. Matt Lee and Sasha. I hope you’ll have me back in three months so I can prove to you that I’m not (still? actually?) a total couch potato!!!