What Is the Six-Minute Walk Test?

What to expect when undergoing this test

A six-minute walk test is usually performed at the start of a pulmonary rehabilitation program or to evaluate a person for lung surgery, and is often part of a standard treatment plan for those with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). This exercise test measures the distance you can walk quickly on a flat, hard surface in six minutes and reflects your ability to perform daily physical activities.

Doctor sitting at reception while hospital staff working
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Purpose of Test

One of the most significant reasons to conduct a six-minute walk test is to measure the response to medical intervention in a patient with moderate to severe heart or lung disease.

Because some, especially the elderly, may be unable to perform the standard treadmill-based exercise test used to evaluate exercise capacity, the six-minute walk test was developed as a valid alternative. ​​

Clinicians may also use a six-minute walk test in the following circumstances:

  • As a one-time measurement of functional status
  • To provide information about a person's ability to perform activities of daily living
  • To evaluate the response of bodily systems to exercise including the heart, lungs, blood, and circulation
  • To determine the physical capability of a person with chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD) and help plan appropriate clinical treatment

Risks and Contraindications

You should not take the six-minute walk test if you are experiencing or have recently experienced any of the following:

  • Unstable angina during the month before the test
  • Heart attack the month before the test
  • Resting heart rate of more than 120 beats per minute
  • Systolic blood pressure of more than 188 mmHg
  • Diastolic blood pressure of more than 100 mmHg

Before the Test

On the day of the test, be sure to dress in comfortable clothing, being especially sure to wear shoes that are designed for walking. You may use walking aids if you normally need them, such as a cane or walker.

Eat a light meal before early morning or afternoon tests, but avoid vigorous exercise within two hours of the test.

The walking test will likely take place within or around a medical facility, such as a healthcare provider's office or hospital.

Cost and Health Insurance

Check with your insurance provider prior to doing the six-minute walk test, though it is usually covered in most cases. The test may be coded as a simple pulmonary stress test for pulmonary assessment, but be sure your practitioner or medical professional can provide sufficient documentation if deemed necessary by your insurance company.

While the six-minute walk test seems like a simplistic tool for measuring your lung function, the test should be performed with proper medical supervision—not on your own.

During the Test

During the six-minute walk test, you will be permitted to slow down, stop, and rest as needed. You can lean against the wall when you're resting but should remain standing.

If you do stop to rest, keep in mind the timer will not stop when you do, and you should start up again as soon as you are ready. Your technician will be watching you carefully, periodically reporting how many minutes have elapsed.

Advise your technician of any concerns, both before and during the test. If you begin experiencing any of the following, let your technician know they should stop the test:

  • Chest pain
  • Intolerable shortness of breath (dyspnea)
  • Leg cramps
  • Staggering
  • Excessive sweating
  • If you become pale or ashen in appearance

Interpreting Results

Most six-minute walk tests will be performed twice: once before and once after therapeutic intervention, in order to quantitatively measure treatment progress.

The goal of medical intervention for COPD and other lung conditions is for you to be able to walk further during the second six-minute test.

A Word From Verywell

Because COPD and other lung and heart conditions may affect people in different ways, the six-minute walk test can provide valuable information to both you and your healthcare provider about how your condition is progressing and how treatments may be helping. It provides an objective look at how your body responds to physical activity, your current lung capacity and how you may be able to perform daily activities.

9 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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Additional Reading

By Deborah Leader, RN
 Deborah Leader RN, PHN, is a registered nurse and medical writer who focuses on COPD.