Exercise tolerance may be reduced in patients with cystic fibrosis, but it is not always possible to predict this from standard lung function measurements. Formal exercise testing may, therefore, be necessary, and the test should be simple and readily available. We have developed a "3-minute step test" and compared it with the standard 6-minute walking test. Subjects stepped up and down a 15-cm-high single step at a rate of 30 steps per minute for 3 minutes. The effect of the step test on spirometry was tested first in 31 children with CF (mean age, 12.0 years), who had a mean (range) baseline forced expired volume in 1 second (FEV1) of 64% (18-94%) of predicted values. The step test was then compared with the standard 6-minute walk in a further 54 patients with cystic fibrosis (mean age, 12.5 years), with mean (range) baseline FEV1 of 61% (14-103%) of predicted values. Outcome measures were minimum arterial oxygen saturation (SaO2), maximum pulse rate, and the modified Borg dyspnea score. Post-step test spirometry showed mean (95% CI) changes of -1.1% (-6.0 + 3.9%) for forced vital capacity, of -1.6% (-4.2 + 1.1%) for FEV1, and +0.25% (-2.8 + 3.3%) for peak expiratory flow, although 5/31 children showed >15% drop in one or more parameters. The step and walk tests both produced significant changes (P < 0.0001) in all outcomes, with a mean (range) minimum SaO2 of 92% (75-98%) versus 92% (75-97%), a maximum pulse rate of 145 b.p.m. (116-189) versus 132 (100-161), and a Borg score of 2.5 (0-9) versus 1.0 (0-5), respectively. Comparison of the two tests showed that the step test increased breathlessness (mean change Borg score, 2.3 vs. 0.8; P < 0.0001) and pulse rate (mean change, 38% vs. 24%, P < 0.0001) significantly more than the walk, whereas the decrease in SaO2 was similar (mean change, -2.9% vs. -2.6%; P = 0.12). Some patients with a significant drop in SaO2 (>4%) would not have the decrease predicted from their baseline lung function. Reproducibility for the two tests was similar. The step test is quick, simple and portable, and is not dependent on patient motivation. Although the step test is more tiring, its effect on SaO2 is similar to the 6-minute walking test. It is a safe test that may prove to be a valuable measure of exercise tolerance in children with pulmonary disease, although longitudinal studies are now needed.