What is a Step Test?

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  • Written By: Micki Elizabeth
  • Edited By: Lauren Fritsky
  • Last Modified Date: 27 January 2020
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A step test is a test of physical fitness specifically meant to measure cardiovascular strength. The test is believed to be derived from the Canadian home fitness test and is now sometimes referred to as the Harvard step test. A variety of similar tests have since been created that can be performed in a doctor’s office with help from a medical professional, in a gym with a fitness specialist, or at home. One needs only a step or another solid surface as well as a method of counting time and tracking steps per minute. Tests usually last three to five minutes or until exhaustion, at which point the pulse is taken to measure fitness level during exercise and track recovery time.

Due to the growing variety of tests, it is important that one first choose the right test for himself and then follow its specific instructions to ensure that results are not skewed. The step test should be challenging, but it should not cause injury or extreme fatigue. Most tests require a step of a specific height; 12 inches (30.5 centimeters) is an average size. Steps can be taken on an actual staircase, equipment like one might use in a step aerobics class, or any sturdy box or surface that will support one’s weight.


Most step tests require that the subject keep up a minimum amount of steps per minute. A metronome may be helpful to stay on this task; online metronomes are usually available for free. The constant beat will also help to maintain a steady pace, which is usually preferred throughout the length of a step test.

Another variable, depending on the type of step test one takes, is the pattern of steps taken. Most call for an up, up, down, down repetition wherein the subject steps up with the right foot followed by the left foot. The right foot then returns to the floor followed by the left foot.

A stopwatch that clearly counts both minutes and seconds may be another useful piece of equipment when performing a step test. The counter could help one to know when the test is complete and aid in obtaining a more accurate heart rate reading at the end of the test. Most instructions will include a chart for measuring physical fitness according to heart rate.

Tracking cardiovascular and physical health is important not only for athletes, but for practically everyone. In many countries, cardiovascular disease kills more people than cancer does. Whether one is concerned, curious, or just wants to make sure that cardiovascular strength is improving, a step test can be an easy way to track physical health.


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