What exercise stress testing can tell you about the heart and what it can't, from the April 2013 Harvard Men's Health Watch

Does it make sense to get an exercise stress test, "just in case," to make the your heart is still ticking like a fine Swiss watch? Probably not—unless you have symptoms of heart disease, according to the April 2013 issue of the Harvard Men's Health Watch.

About one-third of all medical tests are unnecessary. Besides wasting time and money, unnecessary tests can lead to useless and potentially harmful follow-up tests and procedures. Exercise stress testing is often needed for individuals with symptoms like chest pain, unexplained fatigue, or feeling winded in response to normal physical activity. In such cases, it can help a doctor figure out what is wrong, or at least rule out heart trouble. In a person who feels fine, though, just-in-case stress testing is unlikely to reveal a heart problem.

In the classic exercise stress test, a person walks on a treadmill that makes the heart work progressively harder. The heart's rate and electrical rhythms are monitored, along with blood pressure and the appearance of symptoms like chest discomfort or fatigue. Abnormalities in blood pressure, heart rate, or heart rhythms, or worsening symptoms could point to coronary artery disease: fatty deposits (plaques) that reduce the flow of oxygen-rich blood to the heart muscle.

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