A treadmill maximum heart rate test is just what the name indicates; the test, performed on a treadmill, is designed to increase the exerciser's heart rate to its maximum. The procedure is also known as a "stress test" and that label is also accurate, because the test does stress your heart and push it to its limit. But the answers you receive may justify the all-out effort.
The Test’s Purpose
If you take a stress test, it's likely for one of two reasons: first, your doctor may be checking for signs of coronary heart disease; alternatively, if no specific problem is suspected, the test is typically used to evaluate your fitness level. An athlete, for example, may need an objective way to evaluate his fitness. The test may also be a requirement for certain activities, such as flying a plane.
Taking the Test
A stress test must be conducted under medical supervision. Before you take the test a technician will typically place 12 electrocardiograph leads onto your chest. On paper, the test has a maximum of 10 stages of three minutes each. In reality, the exerciser works to exhaustion and typically ends the test long before the final stage. The treadmill will be set at a 10 percent incline and 1.7 mph for the first stage. The incline rises at 2-percent increments in each stage, eventually increasing to 28 percent for the 10th stage. The speed increases to 2.5 mph for the second stage, and then to 3.4, 4.2 and 5.0 mph for the next three stages. If the exerciser continues the test, the speed then rises by 0.5 mph for each of the remaining five stages, ending at 7.5 mph at stage 10.
Analyzing the Results
The ECG results must be analyzed by an expert, such as a cardiologist. If the heart rate maximum test is administered strictly as a measure of your fitness -- in which case the ECG machine may not be used -- the test is scored based on the length of time you remain on the treadmill. You plug the score, listed in minutes, into a formula, which then converts it to an estimate of your VO2 max -- which measures your maximum aerobic capacity. You can use several different formulas, for men and women of varying ages, to obtain a VO2 max result.
Because the stress test pushes your heart about as far as it can go, the procedure must be performed under medical supervision. Indeed, your physician is unlikely to put you through the test unless you're already in good shape. Do not be tempted to replicate the test or to devise your own version.