Fitness Tips

‘I’m a Cardiologist, and This Is How To Use the 6-Minute Walk Test for Faster Miles’

Isadora Baum

Photo: Stocksy / Raymond Forbes Photography
The 6-minute walk test (6MWT) is a widely available, easy-to-reproduce, and well-tolerated test that physicians use to evaluate the functional capacity of patients, particularly regarding their heart health. According to research, the test is typically used to evaluate the extent of cardiopulmonary disease in a patient.

“It may also be used to check response to a particular therapy or as a guide for an exercise prescription or other treatment,” says Dr. Edo Paz, K Health’s VP of Medical and Cardiologist.

Here’s why: “Patients with advanced heart failure often complain of reduced functional capacity and shortness of breath with exertion,” says Dr. Sadi Raza, MD, a prominent cardiologist practicing in Dallas, Texas.

Most often people can complete the test, since it isn’t too challenging. “Because the 6MWT is less strenuous, patients with advanced heart failure are frequently able to complete it, thus improving the administering physician’s ability to predict peak oxygen uptake and survival,” Dr. Raza continues.

In most cases, a 6-minute walk test is completed for evaluation of a known cardiopulmonary issue. “If the results of your test are diminished, your doctor will work with you on a plan to address the underlying health issue,” says Dr. Paz.

How it works

The 6MWT is pretty easy to do and it requires no specialized equipment, but it should be performed indoors on a flat, straight, and hard surface. “The goal of this test is to walk as far as possible for six minutes total, back and forth between two cones, which are about 100 feet or 30 meters apart,” says Dr. Raza.

The results are based on the distance the patient was able to travel in those six minutes. “Healthy individuals will typically accomplish at least 400 to 700 meters, with the main variables being gender, age and height,” says Dr. Paz.

How to complete the 6-minute walk test

  1. Stay calm and relaxed, take their usual medications, eat according to a normal meal schedule, and wear comfortable clothes and shoes.
  2. The administering physician will measure your heart rate, blood pressure and oxygen saturations levels prior to taking the test. “Cardiologists also ask questions about the baseline level of shortness of breath (Borg scale),” says Dr. Raza.
  3. Mark the course with two cones that are 100 feet or 30 meters apart.
  4. Walk back and forth between each cone at a suitable pace and stop and rest if needed.
  5. Record the number of laps and the total distance covered.
  6. Lastly, record the heart rate, blood pressure and oxygen saturation again, as well as the Borg scale value, upon completion.

Why is it important?

The 6MWT measures functional capacity, which is a key marker for your overall cardiovascular health.

“There are several studies that show a correlation between a decreased functional capacity and poorer cardiovascular outcomes, and additionally, there are correlations with the performance on the 6MWT and depression in heart failure patients as well as a sense of physical wellbeing,” says Dr. Raza.

“Also, importantly, a stable 6MWT over the course of a year in patients with heart failure is suggestive for improved survival rates,” Dr. Raza adds. With the pandemic widely affecting the cardiopulmonary system, the need for new remote 6MWT measures has increased significantly. With exercise and a few lifestyle adjustments, you can better results.

“There are studies that show that 30 minutes of daily, moderate-intensity walking for 12 weeks improves your 6MWT distance,” says Dr. Raza. Therefore, a routine of regular exercise performed over time will help improve your 6MWT distance and cardiovascular fitness levels.

As with any activity, consistency is key in building endurance. “I encourage all of my patients to set time aside every day for a quick walk, with a goal of 2.5 hours of moderate-intensity exertion each week,” says Dr. Paz. This will significantly improve overall health, so if you’re unsure which exercise habit is best for you, speak with your doctor.

How to use the 6-minute test for faster miles

This test isn’t often used for faster miles, but rather to test for certain diseases and heart conditions; yet, you can somewhat use it to increase mileage speed. There are normal reference values for the 6MWT based on age and gender, and then again subcategorized for different diseases, such as heart failure and COPD.

Generally, the goal should be to walk around 550 meters in six minutes, where you can walk as close to 550 meters as possible initially and then build upon that. “Since the time period is fixed at 6 minutes, you achieve a greater distance by walking quicker. Time is distance divided by speed,” explains Dr. Raza.

Someone who fails is someone with an underlying health condition or frailty, and they wouldn’t be able to walk more than 300 meters within those six minutes. “That same person would be called a success if over time they are able to increase that distance to reach around 550 meters,” says Dr. Raza.

Once completing the 550-meter mark, the next step is to master a slow jog and then turn it into a run, thus increasing and gaining faster miles.

“However, one must remember, the ‘course’ for the 6MWT is small, essentially a corridor and I would not suggest a jog or a run on a 6MWT course because you will keep having to break pace to turn back around,” says Dr. Raza.

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