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Here’s What Happens During An Exercise Stress Test

If you're experiencing chest pain or dizziness, an exercise stress test may be suggested. Here's what happens and what runners should know.

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stress test

There are a few reasons a doctor would give you an exercise stress test, including to determine a safe level of exercise, diagnose a heart-related cause of chest pain or dizziness, or predict heart conditions. According to the American Heart Association (AHA), the stress test shows a doctor how your heart handles work.

The AHA states: “As your body works harder during the test, it requires more oxygen, so the heart must pump more blood. The test can show if the blood supply is reduced in the arteries that supply the heart. It also helps doctors know the kind and level of exercise appropriate for a patient.”

So what can you expect if you need an exercise stress test? Barry Franklin, PhD. director of the Cardiac Rehabilitation program at Beaumont Hospital, Royal Oak, shares what happens.

What Happens During A Stress Test

It usually is performed walking on a treadmill or pedaling a stationary bike while wearing electrodes on various places on the body. A blood pressure cuff will also be worn. “During a progressive exercise stress test, a patient’s ability to adequately respond to an increasing physical challenge, is evaluated,” explains Dr. Franklin. “A patient can stop the test if they become too fatigued, short of breath, or experience chest pain. The test can also be stopped by the test supervisor for adverse signs/symptoms.”

An echocardiogram is done, as well, that takes pictures of the heart’s chambers an valves. Dr, Frank shares that a nuclear tracer is also injected, which can determine if certain areas aren’t receiving enough blood flow to help diagnose underlying heart disease.

What Doctors Are Looking For

“Technicians are monitoring the patient for adverse signs and/or symptoms which may include abnormal electrocardiographic changes, worrisome heart rhythms irregularities, dizziness or anginal symptoms,” adds Dr. Franklin. “Generally a test should last 8 to 12 minutes, unless it is prematurely stopped due to fatigue or abnormal signs/symptoms. Patients who remain on the treadmill for 7 minutes or longer are in good to excellent physical condition.”

If something is seriously wrong the results will be obtained right away. If everything is fine, however, a patient will usually be notified by a phone call or written note.

How To Prepare

Before a test, you should not have a heavy meal, smoke or drink caffeine. Additionally, adequate sleep and rest is recommended.

“You should wear or bring gym clothing and shoes comfortable for exercise,” shares Dr. Franklin. “Avoid a vigorous workout in the hours before an exercise stress test. Otherwise, plan to maintain your regular running routine. Runners who have not experienced symptoms prior to the test can go into the test with a significant degree of confidence.”

If you have experienced symptoms before the test, you should be confident in knowing the results will help clarify whether the symptoms you’re experiencing are heart-related.