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What is an exercise stress test?

Exercise stress testing is a diagnostic test that doctors use to see how your child’s heart reacts to stress or exercise.

How does an exercise stress test work?

  • Electrodes (small, plastic patches) are placed on your child's chest, arms, and legs.
  • A blood pressure cuff monitors her blood pressure.
  • Your child begins to exercise on a treadmill or stationery bike.
  • The electrodes are connected to the EKG machine by lead wires, through which the electrical activity of your child's heart is measured, interpreted, and printed out.
  • Resistance and speed are varied in order to give a harder or easier workout.
  • Your child will exercise until reaching a target heart rate or until unable to continue due to fatigue, shortness of breath, chest pain, irregular heart rhythms, or other symptoms.

How should I prepare my child for exercise stress testing?

The procedure will take about one hour, including check-in and preparation.

A hospital stay is not necessary unless your child's physician determines that your child's condition requires further observation or hospital admission.

Your child may feel a little tired or sore for a few hours after the procedure, particularly if he isn’t used to exercising. Otherwise, your child should feel normal within a few hours.

How Boston Children’s Hospital approaches exercise stress testing

Boston Children’s researchers use exercise testing to study the ways in which various heart procedures affect a patient’s functioning both right after surgery and far off into the future. Our recent studies have looked at:

  • exercise performance for the first 20 years after cardiac surgery
  • the effects of certain surgeries on how well a child can exercise
  • whether exercise testing can predict a patient’s long-term health

Exercise Stress Testing | Research

For some patients, certain types of surgery can result in limited exercise tolerance. An exercise stress test, which assesses the heart's response to stress or exercise, can be used to test exercise tolerance, as well as to gather data that can shed light on the long term effects of surgery.

The problem

Patients who have undergone Fontan surgery can suffer from reduced peak oxygen consumption, which limits their physical capabilities.

Innovative solution

Boston Children’s researchers conducted a study to assess the evolution of exercise tolerance in patients with previous Fontan surgery. Patients with previous Fontan surgery underwent cardiopulmonary exercise testing between November 2002 and January 2009. They were required to have completed at least two tests, with adequate levels of effort, at least six months apart.

Most of the decline in exercise function occurred in patients under the age of 18. Thereafter, the rate of decline was less significant.

Researchers concluded that although the exercise function of previous Fontan patients tends to decline during late adolescence, it appears to stabilize during early adulthood, which presented new hope for Fontan patients and their families.

Exercise Stress Testing | Programs & Services