How the 6 Minute Walk Test Works in Physical Therapy

The six minute walk test (6MWT) is a common outcome measurement tool used in physical therapy to determine your basic exercise endurance and functional fitness. It’s simple to perform, and it can help your physical therapist evaluate improvement or decline in your overall functional status during your rehabilitation program.

Senior couple holding hands and walking in park
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Performing the Test

The six minute walk test is simple to perform: you must simply walk at a comfortable pace for a total of six minutes. While walking, you may use your normal assistive device, like a cane or a walker. No person may provide assistance while you’re walking, and if you need to rest during the test, you may do so as needed.

The total distance that you walk during the six minute walk test is your score. if you’re unable to complete the six-minute time period, your score becomes the distance walked, and the time is also recorded.

Where It Can Be Done

The 6MWT can be administered anywhere. It’s often used in hospital physical therapy settings, but it can also be used in an outpatient clinic. The test is often used as a functional outcome measure in cardiac rehabilitation programs. If the test is administered in a hallway, then you must simply walk to the end of it, turn around and then walk back. You’ll repeat as necessary during the six-minute test, making sure to measure your total distance.

The 6MWT has been found to be a very reliable test when used for many different patient populations. In men or women, young and old, the test seems to offer a decent measure of one’s endurance.

How Often Should the 6MWT Be Done?

Your physical therapist will likely perform the 6MWT when you first start physical therapy during the initial evaluation. A retest may be done at regular intervals or whenever your PT deems it necessary to measure your rehabilitation progress. Sometimes your health insurance company may require that your PT perform an outcome measure at regular intervals to ensure that the service you are getting is necessary and effective.

Improvement in your 6 MWT score can help you monitor your own progress in physical therapy, and it can serve as motivation for you to continue working hard in physical therapy.

If your 6 MWT score gets worse over time in physical therapy, do not let it get you down. Use the information to adjust your rehab goals and methods. Perhaps you simply need to make some adjustments in your PT program to see improvement in your score. The bottom line is that you must work with your physical therapist in a therapeutic alliance to achieve the goals set out for you. Sometimes these goals are easily obtainable, and other times, hard work is needed to help get you back on track to your normal functional mobility.

How to Improve Your Time

If you are working with your PT each week, you may wonder if there are things he or she may do to help you improve your six minute walk test. There are.

Endurance exercise can help you improve the way you walk and the amount you can walk. This type of cardio-respiratory exercise may include:

  • Biking
  • Stair climbing
  • Treadmill walking

Any exercise that challenges your body’s ability to perform exercise and movement for an extended can help improve your score on the 6MWT. And walking is likely the best one of these to choose. Why? Because walking is specific to the 6MWT; if you walk for training, then you will likely improve your walking tolerance for the test.

A Word From Verywell

If you’re engaged in a physical therapy program to help improve your functional mobility or overall fitness level, you may want to ask your physical therapist to administer the six minute walk test. You can use your score to track your progress in therapy, and improvements in your score may help motivate you to continue to improve your overall fitness level.

1 Source
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  1. American College of Rheumatology. Six minute walk test (6MWT).

By Brett Sears, PT
Brett Sears, PT, MDT, is a physical therapist with over 20 years of experience in orthopedic and hospital-based therapy.