Aerobic Fitness Test: The Step Method

Published: May, 2006

To help assess your aerobic fitness, here is a minimum standard: See if you can walk up five flights of stairs at your own pace without stopping, using the railing only for balance. The test may seem too simple to be useful, but in the days before sophisticated exercise tests were widely available, thoracic surgeons used this very test to see if their patients were fit enough to undergo lung operations. In modern terms, people who pass the five-flight test have maximum oxygen uptake values of at least 20. That level will get you through surgery and daily life, but healthy people should use exercise to build up to levels two or even three times higher.

It is unlikely that a health club would ask you to use the stairwell for self-assessment, but it might well use a single 12-inch step or bench to evaluate your fitness. With just a little help, you can do it yourself. Ask someone to time you and count for you so you can concentrate on the task at hand (or foot!). At the signal to begin, step up with your right foot, then bring your left foot up beside it. Follow the "up, up" with "down, down" to complete one step. Repeat at a rate of 24 steps per minute for three consecutive minutes. Then rest in a chair for exactly one minute before taking your pulse. Finally, use the YMCA standards (see table below) to see how you stack up.

The step test can be quite demanding; if you have been diagnosed with heart disease, if you suspect you may have heart disease, or if you have major risk factors, ask your doctor about a formal stress test instead of taking the step test. And if you are out of shape or think the test may be hard for you, take a one-minute pretest to see how you fare.

Step Test Pulse Count (Using a 60 second pulse count)


Good to Excellent

Average to Above Average

Poor to Fair



84 or lower


101 or higher


86 or lower


104 or higher


90 or lower


107 or higher


93 or lower


113 or higher


96 or lower


116 or higher

Above 65

102 or lower


119 or higher



93 or lower


111 or higher


94 or lower


112 or higher


96 or lower


120 or higher


101 or lower


125 or higher


103 or lower


127 or higher

Above 65

105 or lower


131 or higher

Excerpted from The No Sweat Exercise Plan: Lose Weight, Get Healthy, and Live Longer, by Harvey B. Simon, M.D.

Reprinted by permission of the McGraw-Hill Companies; © Copyright 2005 by President and Fellows of Harvard College. All Rights Reserved.

As a service to our readers, Harvard Health Publishing provides access to our library of archived content. Please note the date of last review or update on all articles. No content on this site, regardless of date, should ever be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or other qualified clinician.