Breathing and lung function tests

Tests to measure your exercise capacity

Medical problems can affect our ability to exercise. When we’re physically active, we need to breathe more. To check your breathing and to show how able you are to do everyday things, your tester will ask you to do some exercise and take measurements when you’re exercising and afterwards. These might include your blood pressure, heart rate and oxygen levels.

Tests to see how your body and breathing responds to exercise include:

Walk tests

A common and simple test is the six-minute walk test. The aim of the test is to walk as far as you possibly can in 6 minutes – remembering you can rest when needed. Your oxygen levels and heart rate may be monitored during the test using a pulse oximeter. You may wear a pulse oximeter like a wrist watch or have one strapped to your forehead

In a shuttle walking test you will walk between 2 points 10 metres apart. You’ll be asked to walk between 2 points until you hear a bleep. The time before the next bleep gets shorter, so you’ll have less time to get to the next point. The time will get shorter as the test goes on, so you’ll need to walk quicker and quicker. When you can’t keep up with the bleeps, the test ends.

With these tests you need to have two goes and the results from the best one is taken.

Treadmill test

This exercise looks at your breathing and heart rate during exercise. You walk on a treadmill – a running machine often seen in gyms – while you breathe through a special mouthpiece. To monitor your heart rate during the test, you may have small sticky patches put on your chest.

Cycle test

Sometimes you might be asked to use an exercise bike. Usually you will be asked to breathe through a mouthpiece while you cycle and your heart rate will be measured too. The pedals will get harder to push round with each minute of the test. 

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Last medically reviewed: January 2017. Due for review: January 2020

This information uses the best available medical evidence and was produced with the support of people living with lung conditions. Find out how we produce our information. If you’d like to see our references get in touch.