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At the Exercise Physiology Lab at Boston Children's Hospital, we use exercise tests — such as running on a treadmill — to predict how your or your child’s heart and lungs respond to exercise or other physical activities. We perform more than 1,900 exercise tests each year.

Most clinical tests done by pediatric cardiologists (other than exercise tests) assess the heart and lungs when a patient is at rest. Although valuable, these tests may not predict how a patient's heart and lungs will respond to exercise, or measure the patient's true capacity to perform physical activities. The testing done in our lab provides this assessment.

Exercise can help children with congenital heart defects

A study led by Boston Children’s found that most children with serious congenital heart defects can, in fact, benefit from regular exercise. A 12-week study found that heart function improved by as much as 20 percent in 15 out of 16 children. These benefits are found in kids with all types of heart disease, from mild heart conditions to the most complex.

Exercise testing is extremely safe and can help identify which patients are at higher risk for having future cardiac events.

Our depth of experience in exercise physiology

In the Exercise Physiology Lab at Boston Children's, we use the most sophisticated, state-of-the-art technology to obtain the most reliable and clinically useful data. Formal exercise testing can provide valuable and objective insights into a patient's heart and lung condition and capacity.

Your visit to the Exercise Physiology Lab

For the exercise test, you or your child will be asked to exercise on a stationary bicycle or a treadmill. The type of test and equipment used is chosen to meet the individual needs of each patient.

During the exercise test, the resistance pedaling or the speed and elevation of the treadmill are gradually increased until the patient can no longer comfortably keep up with the machine. Patients usually exercise for about 10 to 15 minutes, and are monitored for about 10 minutes before and after exercise.

Components of an exercise test may include:

  • ECG monitoring: A special exercise-ECG system monitors heart rhythm during exercise and assesses other exercise-related ECG abnormalities.
  • Metabolic measurements: Patients breathe through a snorkel-like mouthpiece that is connected to a special computer to measure the amount of air breathed in and out during exercise.
  • Blood pressure measurements: Blood pressure cuffs monitor each patient’s blood pressure before, during and after exercise.
  • Pulse oximetry: A pulse oximeter may be attached to a patient's finger to measure oxygen saturation before, during, and after exercise.
  • Spirometry: This test measures lung function by having the patient blow through a special mouthpiece that is connected to a computer. Spirometry may be performed before or after exercise. The results are used to identify lung problems that might affect a patient's ability to exercise.
  • Echocardiogram: Sometimes an echocardiogram is done during exercise, or right after exercise, to further assess how exercise affects a patient's heart.
  • Myocardial perfusion imaging: Patients who have coronary artery problems may have this test to see if blood flow to any part of the heart is impaired. For the test, a special dye injected through an IV and a special camera takes pictures of blood flow.
  • Six-minute walk test: Patients walk for six minutes, supervised by our team. This test helps understand exercise capacity in patients who already have limitations due to heart disease.