Guidelines: Six-Minute Walk Test

This statement provides practical guidelines for the 6-minute walk test (6MWT). Specifically, it reviews indications, details factors that influence results, presents a brief step-by-step protocol, outlines safety measures, describes proper patient preparation and procedures, and offers guidelines for clinical interpretation of results. These recommendations are not intended to limit the use of alternative protocols for research studies. We do not discuss the general topic of clinical exercise testing. As with other American Thoracic Society statements on pulmonary function testing, these guidelines come out of a consensus conference. Drafts were prepared by two members (P.L.E. and R.J.Z.) and were based on a comprehensive Medline literature search from 1970 through 2001, augmented by suggestions from other committee members. Each draft responded to comments from the working committee. The guidelines follow previously published methods as closely as possible and provide a rationale for each specific recommendation.The final recommendations represent a consensus of the committee. The committee recommends that these guidelines be reviewed in five years and in the meantime encourages further research in areas of controversy.

There are several modalities available for the objective evaluation of functional exercise capacity. Some provide a very complete assessment of all systems involved in exercise performance (high tech), whereas others provide basic information but are low tech and are simpler to perform. The modality used should be chosen based on the clinical question to be addressed and on available resources. The most popular clinical
exercise tests in order of increasing complexity are stair climbing, a 6MWT, a shuttle-walk test, detection of exercise-induced asthma, a cardiac stress test (e.g., Bruce protocol), and a cardiopulmonary exercise test (1, 2). 

Other professional organizations have published standards for cardiac stress testing (3, 4). Assessment of functional capacity has traditionally been done by merely asking patients the following: “How many flights of stairs can you climb or how many blocks can you walk?” However, patients vary in their recollection and may report overestimations or underestimations of their true functional capacity. Objective measurements are usually better than self-reports. In the early 1960s, Balke developed a simple test to evaluate the functional capacity by measuring the distance walked during a defined period of time (5). A 12-minute field performance test was then developed to evaluate the level of physical fitness of healthy individuals (6). The walking test was also adapted to assess disability in patients with chronic bronchitis (7). In an attempt to accommodate patients with respiratory disease for whom walking 12 minutes was too
exhausting, a 6-minute walk was found to perform as well as the 12-minute walk (8). A recent review of functional walking tests concluded that “the 6MWT is easy to administer, better tolerated, and more reflective of activities of daily living than the other walk tests” (9). 

The 6MWT is a practical simple test that requires a 100-ft hallway but no exercise equipment or advanced training for technicians. Walking is an activity performed daily by all but the most severely impaired patients. This test measures the distance that a patient can quickly walk on a flat, hard surface in a period of 6 minutes (the 6MWD). It evaluates the global and integrated responses of all the systems involved during exercise, including the pulmonary and cardiovascular systems, systemic circulation, peripheral circulation, blood, neuromuscular units, and muscle metabolism. It does not provide specific information on the function of each of the different organs and systems involved in exercise or the mechanism of exercise limitation, as is possible with maximal cardiopulmonary exercise testing. The self-paced 6MWT assesses the submaximal level of functional

Most patients do not achieve maximal exercise capacity during the 6MWT; instead, they choose their own intensity of exercise and are allowed to stop and rest during the test. However, because most activities of daily living are performed at submaximal levels of exertion, the 6MWD may better reflect the functional exercise level for daily physical activities. 

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