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Step-testing to measure your aerobic fitness

Today, we'll talk about aerobic fitness. Aerobic fitness is the ability of your lungs, heart and blood systems to get oxygen to the muscles, and the ability of muscles to use that oxygen to release energy from store fats and sugars.

Any exercise that stimulates the aerobic system to become more efficient is an "aerobic" exercise. There is a direct relationship between the demand on oxygen by the muscles and the pumping of oxygen-rich blood to the muscles by the heart, so the heart-beat rate is often used to indicate the level of aerobic stimulation during exercise.

The rationale for using the step test as an indicator of aerobic fitness is based on this relationship between oxygen consumption, heart rate and exercise work load. There is a positive relationship between oxygen consumption and submaximal exercise work-rate, and a reasonably high correlation between heart rate and oxygen consumption. So we can use heart rate to predict aerobic efficiency.

Although there is a rapid decrease in heart rate after exercise, there is still a relatively high correlation between heart rate during early stages of recovery and heart rate during exercise. This step test uses heart rate in recovery to indicate aerobic fitness. The theory is that the fitter you get, the lower your heart rate during the test and the quicker it will recover after exercise.

I never use tables for predicting maximum oxygen uptake from step tests, as they're subject to errors of 12 to 15 percent. The point of this test is to measure aerobic response now, then undertake an aerobic exercise program, and then remeasure response to measure change.

Today we're going to use this relationship to look at a simple test to monitor changes in aerobic efficiency, the Queen's College Step Test, my favorite as it is easy and accurate at measuring changes in aerobic fitness.

Some may have had unpleasant experiences with the original step test developed at Harvard University. This is much simpler and not as stressful!

The Queen's College version is a three minute test which uses heart rate in the early stages of recovery as its indicator of aerobic fitness. This measure shows definite training effects - recovery heart rate will be relatively lower with increased cardiovascular fitness.

Counting pulse. Don't do this test if you have knee or hip problems, or if you have a medical problem that may be aggravated. Fatigue in thigh muscles (quadriceps) may result if you lead with one leg all the time. Change the leading leg regularly through the test.

Equipment. All you'll need is a 405mm step-up bench, a metronome or similar to set a rhythm, and a stopwatch for timing the test and counting your pulse.

Females will need to step at a rate of 22 per minute and males at 24. Set the cadence, or rate of stepping with a metronome set for 88 beats per minute for females or 96 for males, or certain pulse meters, stopwatches, or wristwatches can be programmed to sound at the correct cadence, and include a stopwatch function for timing the test.

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Procedures. You may like to practice taking your pulse so that it is taken accurately and exactly during the specified period - otherwise the test will have been a waste of time.

  1. Stand facing step bench, with both feet together on the floor. 
  2. Start metronome or similar device at prescribed beat.
  3. Count in the start of the test to four, and then start stopwatch and to step up and down, one foot at a time: beat 1, step up with one foot; beat 2, up fully with the other foot; beat 3, down with one foot; beat 4, down with the other foot. Step regularly, exactly in time with beat.
  4. Remember to start timing the activity as soon as you begin to step.
  5. You may find it helpful to count the cadence aloud to get the rhythm: "up-up, down-down, up-up, down-down".
  6. After exactly three minutes, stop and stand quietly. Stop earlier if at any time you get join paint, light-headed or unduly fatigued.
  7. You now have five seconds to locate the carotid pulse in neck. After five seconds, take pulse for exactly 15 seconds.
  8. Now convert the 15-seconds pulse to beats per minute by multiplying the bests per 15 seconds by four.
  9. Record the result so you can compare the results to previous results, starting your recording of aerobic fitness.
  10. Walk around a little to cool down, and then stretch your leg muscles.

You can test your aerobic fitness every month or so.

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