Stair climbing burns twice the calories of walking, and it strengthens your heart, lungs, and muscles.
Working exercise into your daily routine is a great way to boost your activity level. That’s why we often recommend that you take the stairs when possible. “We know that spending long periods of time sitting down can have a negative impact on heart health, so stair climbing is a great way to break up sedentary time,” says Dr. JoAnne Foody, medical director of cardiovascular wellness services at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Stair climbing is so good for you that it’s not just reserved for opportunities to skip an elevator; it’s now considered a bona fide workout.
What’s the appeal?
Stair climbing builds muscle strength in your legs, buttocks, arms, and even your shoulders.
Stair climbing has many physiological benefits. It burns twice as many calories as walking, and it engages a number of different leg muscles: the glutes in the buttocks, the hamstrings and quadriceps in the thighs, and the gastrocnemius and soleus muscles in the calves. It works your arm and shoulder muscles if you pull yourself up along the side rails, which is encouraged. The activity helps build muscle strength and new bone. It also strengthens your heart and your lungs and releases heart-healthy hormones. “Stair climbing reduces the risk for heart disease by lowering blood pressure and cholesterol, reducing stress levels, and aiding in achieving or maintaining a healthy weight,” explains Dr. Foody, who’s also the medical director of ClimbCorps, a group dedicated to improving America’s heart health.
Stair climbing also has the benefit of convenience. Most stairwells are indoors, which means you can use them in any weather, even when it’s rainy or bitter cold. And stair climbing is essentially free, available in most buildings across the country. Alternatively, you can buy a stair climbing machine for your home or use a machine at a gym.
Stair climbing comes with risks, however. It may not be appropriate if you have balance problems or pain and weakness in your shoulders, hips, knees, ankles, or feet. If you have heart or lung disease, you should speak with your doctor before starting any type of stair climbing routine, even when you’re tempted to skip an elevator now and then.
How to start
With your doctor’s okay, you can begin stair climbing at a gym, at home, or in public. You can purchase small portable “mini steppers” for about $50. Larger machines start at about $300 to $400. Be sure to talk to a trainer first to learn how to use your own equipment or the machines at the gym. You can also take on the stairs in public places. Look for multi-level office buildings or two-story shopping malls that have well-lighted staircases in good condition, free of trip hazards.
Don’t charge up a long flight of stairs on your first day. Start slowly, and keep an even pace. Dr. Foody recommends setting a weekly or monthly goal, either time spent climbing or the number of flights climbed at once, and then work toward improving your fitness level over time. It’s also important to stretch after climbing to avoid soreness or injury. “And the good news is that you don’t have to dedicate hours to stair climbing. Adults should get at least 150 minutes of exercise each week, but it can be broken up into smaller chunks of time, at least 10 minutes at a time. If you climb the stairs for 10 minutes three times a day from Monday through Friday, you’ll reach the recommended physical activity level,” says Dr. Foody.
Stair climbing popularity is reaching new heights.
The activity isn’t just for exercising anymore; now it’s a sport.
Stair climbing is so popular as an exercise that it’s now a sport, with athletes racing up the stairs of some of the world’s tallest buildings. The sport has also inspired fitness challenges for the general public. The Empire State Building in New York City (and its 1,576 steps) has been the site of a stair-climbing event every year since 1977.
A newer event is called ClimbAmerica, in which participants climb stairs in buildings or stadiums to raise funds and awareness for heart disease. It’s hosted by ClimbCorps at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital. “ClimbCorps is a service corps dedicated to improving America’s heart health. We provide education, programming, and research for heart disease prevention year-round, and we host ClimbAmerica twice a year,” says ClimbCorps Director Annette Rubin.
The next ClimbAmerica event happens June 7, 2014, in Boston, and it will be