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What is the Harvard Step Test?

By G. Wiesen
Updated Jan 22, 2024
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The Harvard step test is used to measure and evaluate the cardiac health of a person, and to evaluate changes in health over time through repeated testing. It was devised at Harvard University during World War II to evaluate cardiac health and assist in the development of heart health regimens for athletes and military personnel. The test consists of a person stepping up and down from a bench or sports step and then measuring heart rates. One of the major strengths of the Harvard step test is that it can be performed repeatedly to evaluate and gauge cardiovascular health over time.

By using the Harvard step test, a person can quickly and easily evaluate his or her own cardiovascular health and have a sense of his or her own general heart health. The test was designed in a way to make it easy to do alone or with the assistance of one other person, and the entire test takes less than ten minutes to perform and evaluate. All that is needed is an athletic step or bench of about 20 inches (50.8 cm) in height and a stopwatch, though a metronome can make the process easier.

The Harvard step test begins with a person stepping up onto and back down from the step or bench once every two seconds. This is why a metronome can make the testing easier, since it can give a person the proper rhythm to ensure 30 steps per minute. Someone else can also help by keeping the person in rhythm and by watching the time. The person steps up and down the step or bench for five minutes or until he or she is exhausted and cannot continue. Once this time passes, the person immediately sits down and rests.

After one minute, the person’s heart rate is measured for 30 seconds, then at two minutes after completing the steps the heart rate is measured another 30 seconds, and at three minutes the heart rate is again measured for 30 seconds. The number of heart beats counted at each 30 second interval are then added together and doubled. Then, the amount of time spent stepping, either 300 seconds or the number of seconds that passed before exhaustion, is multiplied by 100. This total is then divided by the previous number that was found by doubling the three heart rates when added together.

The resulting number is compared to a chart that indicates ideal numbers for healthy individuals completing the Harvard step test. Based on this chart, anything over 90 indicates excellent cardiovascular health, 80 to 90 is above average, 65 to 79 is average, 55 to 64 is below average, and under 55 is considered poor. The Harvard step test can then be repeated over a number of weeks or months to evaluate the effects of a diet or exercise routine on heart health.

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