A few times a month, I’ll end my normal jogging routine with “strides,” which are basically three to four windsprints meant to stretch your jogging-pace muscles, work new muscles and force your lungs to do a little extra work. The last part is the absolute worst. I may be in relatively decent shape, but I’d rather walk into traffic then spend five minutes catching my breath.
So when I stumbled upon Boost Oxygen — a buzzy new product with a $1 million injection from Shark Tank‘s Kevin O’Leary — I was intrigued. It’s 95 percent oxygen in a can, and it promises to improve sports performance and recovery, sharpen mental acuity and even ease hangovers.
Sounds too good to be true, right?
Spoiler alert: almost definitely. Yet it’s hard to find a middle ground in reviews for canned oxygen. You’ll find raves on Amazon and “trial” blogs from guys who climbed a mountain using it. At the same time, many remain skeptical. In a YouTube video, rapper 2Chainz tried a far more expensive brand of recreational oxygen and smelled nothing but bullshit.
The truth lies in the science of how lungs work.
How Canned Oxygen Supposedly Helps
Before I dropped $15 on a bottle of air, I asked Osita Onugha, director of thoracic surgery research at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California, if canned oxygen is worth the money.
To start, Onugha quickly points to the scam of trendy oxygen bars — i.e., places where people hook themselves up to a tank of flavored oxygen and breathe it in for 10 or 20 minutes. “They might feel a sort of a high in the short term,” he says, “but there’s no scientific data that shows benefits to healthy people getting supplemental oxygen.”
Basically, in a resting state, you don’t need more oxygen than what you’re already breathing. Onugha explains that the air we consume typically has about 21 percent oxygen; healthy individuals get about 95 to 99 percent saturation just from that. “It’s the reason you do CPR and mouth-to-mouth,” he says. “You’re blowing air into somebody because there’s still oxygen in that air.”
When it comes to athletics and exercise recovery, however, things get a little more complicated. “It’s hard to single out one factor when the cardiovascular system is so complex, so [aiding in recovery] is not as simple as just adding more oxygen into the mix,” Onugha tells me. Athletes, for example, have an extremely efficient cardiovascular system. They’ve strengthened their heart to be able to pump more blood at a time, and more blood means it can take in more oxygen. Essentially, then, athletes’ red blood cells can handle an increased load of oxygen from a tank, where a “normal” person might not.
Still, that’s not the reason you’ll see an NFL player hooked up to an oxygen mask after returning a punt for 60 yards. “It’s all about speed of recovery,” Onugha says. “They’re tired, but they have to be prepared to go back on the field, so they’ll get supplemental oxygen in order to get back on the field in one minute instead of five. It will help them get the same amount of oxygen in fewer breaths.”
The Sketchy Science of Oxygen and Recovery
That’s the idea behind Boost Oxygen as well. Unfortunately, it’s worth noting that the connection between supplemental oxygen and recovery is disputed. In particular, multiple studies on male athletes have found that “using 100 precent oxygen applied for short periods offers no advantage on recovery from exhaustive exercise or on subsequent exercise performance,” reported The Journal of the American Medical Association.
But let’s get back to me, a guy who is decidedly not an NFL player. I’m not talking about getting hooked up to a 680-liter tank of oxygen — more like one or two breaths from a 6-liter can after a run. That amount is “good for 150 breaths,” according to Boost Oxygen.
What does that even mean? Onugha explains that Boost is promising to “give you all the oxygen you can get in three to four breaths in just one breath,” but the problem is, “whether your body is able to take all that oxygen is unclear. It’s not replacing how much oxygen your red blood cells can carry; you can only improve that through rigorous training.”
He continues with a hypothetical: “Say you’re on a run and you get tired. So you stop and give yourself a boost of oxygen. At best, maybe you’re saving yourself a couple of breaths, but I can’t say that it’s helping you any more than simply stopping to breathe without it.”
Oxygen Doesn’t Cure Hangovers. Sorry.
What about the promise to cure your hangover, though? Is that also bullshit?
In a word: Yep. “Hangovers are due to dehydration, not an oxygen deficit,” Onugha tells me. Maybe you’d get a placebo effect or feel better from simply taking deep breaths, “but there isn’t any physiological reason I see why more oxygen would cure a hangover.”
Alas, the only way to truly bounce back from any type of exertion is with a strong heart that pumps healthy red blood cells to the lungs to exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide. “Taking multiple breaths is the only way to offset your oxygen deficit; you’re not going to do that in one breath,” Onugha says. “There’s a reason why star athletes like LeBron James pour money and resources into improved training regimens — none of which use supplemental oxygen.”