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The biomarker boom: Tracking fat, oxygen, and more in the name of fitness


VO2 max testing
Photo: XFitLab
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In New York City’s fitness scene right now, measuring your progress by stepping on a scale is like using AOL for email.

In the past month, for example, I’ve learned my percent body fat, skeletal muscle mass, V02 max, basal metabolic rate, and anaerobic threshold.

It’s all part of a biomarker boom, in which measurements that go way beyond weight are driving workout programming in interesting, innovative ways—from ahead-of-the-curve personal training spots like S10 Training and Soho Strength Lab to gyms like TMPL, which creates Digital Metabolic Profiles for members using multiple tests. And CrossFit Solace just launched its first Solace Reset Program, which includes individualized bio-marker tracking.

It may sound like a way-too-serious approach to your daily sweat sesh, but if you never leave home without your FitBit—or if you’re tracking everything from your period to your meals to your sleep cycle—then this kind of fitness fine-tuning might just be a few steps further along in your biohacking journey.

Here’s what you need to know about the  biomarker tracking boom.

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Finely tuned fitness plans

“Through the measurements we’re taking, we’ll be able to refine nutrition and exercise regimens to the participants and their lifestyles to a very specific degree,” explains co-owner Jim Loperfido.

That’s a big reason why body composition testing has always been offered at Tribeca’s S10 Training, explains Stephen Cheuk. He used to measure body fat using calipers but was able to expand his tracking by getting an InBody 570, a machine that uses “bioelectrical impedance analysis” via electrodes under your feet and hands to spit out a sheet full of measurements, from body fat to how much lean muscle your legs have.

After I step off, he shows me that for some reason my left leg has more muscle than the right. “You have some structural imbalance; that’s the first thing I would correct, because those kinds of things could lead to injuries later on,” he says. He uses the measurements to make tiny tweaks like this to programming constantly, testing clients every two weeks to track their progress toward everything from weight-loss to muscle-gain goals.

The InBody even shows health-affecting measurements like visceral fat (the really bad deep belly fat that contributes to diabetes and heart disease), which would be hard for Cheuk to measure otherwise. He tells me about a client who came in at a level 10 and in less than five months, was down to a level five. “It keeps trainers honest,” he says. “With this, you’ve got to deliver results.”

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Round-the-clock data

Results are what they’re going for with CrossFit Solace’s new Reset Program, too, and Loperfido says the testing they’re doing—including blood work, 3D body-mapping with Body Labs, and heart rate and sleep tracking with Whoop—is especially important because it allows the team to account for what people are doing when sweat sessions are over, outside of the gym.

“Hormone management, nutrition, and sleep are really the things that are going to make a huge difference in someone’s life, that will allow them to exercise well, safely, and efficiently,” he says. “We’re taking a bigger focus on the holistic perspective.”

Increasing performance is also a big driver when it comes to measurements. XFitLab, for example, launched less than a year ago and offers a portable version of VO2 max and body composition testing, which has quickly become an in-demand perk at CrossFit boxes and will now be offered regularly at Soho Strength Lab. “VO2 max testing is something a lot of people ask for and they just don’t have access to it. It’s not that available outside of hospitals,” says founder Jaime Schehr, ND, RD.

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Finding your own “max”

Unlike body composition (which they also do), VO2 max testing requires you to get active—running, rowing, or biking at various levels of intensity while wearing a heart-rate monitor and breathing into a Darth Vader-esque masque. VO2 stands for “Volume of Oxygen” and your max (or your maximum rate of oxygen uptake), is the best indicator of your fitness level. The higher it is, the more intensely you’ll be able to exercise (AKA you’ll perform at higher levels).

Since I exercise a hell of a lot, my “max” was pretty high (validation!), but Schehr also pointed out that if I wanted to keep improving performance, I’d want to raise my anaerobic threshold (which allows for high-intensity exercise, as opposed to endurance), by incorporating more HIIT training, for example, rather than long runs.

Since the amount of oxygen you consume directly impacts how many calories you burn, VO2 testing also leaves you with a table that gives you personalized target heart-rate workout zones, which show the most accurate numbers on how many calories you can realistically expect to burn in an hour (unlike the crazy blanket claims most workouts make).

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So, who should take the bio-marker plunge?

All of this information is most useful when applied to your workouts with the help of a skilled trainer, which doesn’t come cheap at any of these places. Or you’ll have to put in serious time to build your own programming around it.

So it’s likely to catch on most among those with deep pockets and specific goals (like major weight loss or muscle gain) or among athletes like CrossFitters and powerlifters who are training to compete.

Still, the overall ethos of tracking progress with metrics other than weight is an undeniable trend in wellness that’s likely to continue to grow on a bigger scale—and for now, I’m going to start training my right leg like I mean it.

If you love data, but hate clunky fitness trackers, try these chic styles. Or if numbers drive you nuts and you’d rather just zone out and sweat, climbing may be the mind-body workout you’ve been looking for