Since I started performing exercise tests I’ve used both treadmills and bicycle ergometers. There are a several reasons that make ergometers somewhat better for exercise testing than treadmills. Most importantly the reduced noise and physical motion makes it easier to get blood pressure measurements and better quality ECG’s. In addition the workload can be set fairly precisely and they are safer for patients. Treadmills do have some advantages however, since patients are usually able to achieve a higher maximum oxygen consumption (~10%) and for many individuals walking is more natural than riding a bicycle.
When I’ve used a treadmill for exercise testing I’ve always used one version or another of the Bruce protocol. This choice was made by my medical directors but it has always seemed to get patients to their maximum exercise capacity within a reasonable period of time and it seemed to provide reasonable workloads for patients over a broad range of physical abilities. About a dozen years ago (the last time my PFT lab was moved) we no longer had room for a treadmill and replaced it with an ergometer. Since then, I haven’t thought much about treadmills and treadmill protocols.
Recently I was talking with a physician who is going to be performing exercise research with a treadmill. When he showed me the treadmill protocol he was planning on using I thought that the initial speed (3.3 MPH) was too high. Since his study population is going to consist of obese, deconditioned asthmatics, I suggested that for patient safety that it would be better to start at a lower speed and elevation. He asked if I could suggest a different treadmill protocol but I had to reply that all I had ever used was the Bruce protocol.
This brought up an interesting question however, and that is whether there is any such thing as an optimal treadmill protocol. To answer this question I undertook a broad survey of treadmill protocols and have to say that the answer is probably no. Strictly speaking, each treadmill protocol is intended for a specific range of physical effort and the selection of any one protocol has to be based on the expectations and limitations of a patient’s physical abilities.