Rarely does climbing stairs in an apartment or office building come to mind as a routine exercise. but it should. Numerous studies show that stair climbing, even for short, intense runs, strengthens muscles, boosts energy, and improves overall cardiorespiratory fitness. Climbing stairs daily may reduce your risk of developing metabolic syndrome, a combination of diabetes, high blood pressure and obesity.
Researchers at Britain’s Birmingham University concluded that “climbing from home was at least as effective as a gym-based protocol” after observing 52 sedentary women between the ages of 18 and 45 – one climbing stairs at home, the other doing the same in a gym. Athletic – Five days a week, progressing from two lifts a day to five, over the course of eight weeks. “Going up and down stairs at home reduces health risks at a low cost per person.”
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Why stairs are a good exercise
Another study, published in the Journal of Aging and Physical Activity, described stair climbing as a “user-friendly, time-saving exercise technique,” particularly as a “promising intervention strategy” for improving cognitive functioning in older adults.
According to the National Apartment Association, about 39 million Americans live in apartment buildings, many of them in tall buildings with plenty of steps to climb. Office buildings and shopping malls also offer stair climbing possibilities. And racing up the stairs of a skyscraper – better known as the tower run – is also gaining prominence as an organized competitive sport.
Alvin Morton, assistant professor of exercise science and rehabilitation at Merrimack College in North Andover, Massachusetts, walks up and down the stairs in his apartment building for 20 minutes with a clip, donning a heavy jacket to ramp up his exertion.
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“It qualifies as at least moderate activity,” says Morton, MD, a member of the American College of Sports Medicine’s Fitness Index Advisory Board. “And you have the stairs right there in your apartment building. Besides, who has time to travel to the gym, take a shower, and leave the kids for that long?”
Every time you go up, you work many leg muscles. In the process, you also lift your entire body weight, against the force of gravity, by up to 10 inches. Your muscles have to generate enough energy to do this, and even more so if you’re moving at a vigorous pace. Scientifically, it’s known as a vertical displacement and is a version of resistance training.
Climbing a ladder in an everyday or natural setting is where aerobic exercise may grow in popularity, says Melissa Weinert-Rotte, PhD, professor and director of the science program at Westfield University in Westfield, Massachusetts. Let’s see how they can do the exercises in a home environment,” she says.
Winter stair climbing workouts prove to be very rewarding. I can work out in absolute privacy, without facing the cold outside, let alone paying an annual gym membership fee.
Year after year, and decade after decade, my commitment to our ladders has paid off. It improved my speed, strength, and endurance—especially my footwork—for playing basketball and tennis in the warmer months. Why bother with StairMaster? (Full disclosure: Last year, my stair-climbing adventures ended when I moved into a bungalow in a warmer climate.)
How to start a stair climbing system
If you decide to turn your staircase into a home gym, take it easy at first, the experts recommend.
Start with just a few floors per walk, taking one step at a time at a slow pace. Stand up straight, shoulders back, chin tucked in, because it’s easy to hunch over if you’re tired. Build in breaks. If you’re big on metrics, apps like StepJockey, Stairforce, and StairClimbs can track how many floors you climb on a given task.
If you go for a long time – say more than 15 minutes – take it slow. But if you choose to go fast, be brief. Swing your arms. Once you get the hang of it, you can turn up the difficulty and go faster and longer. You might even wear a backpack or wrist weights.
“Stair climbing is an excellent exercise for anyone, of any age, who is already exercising with good balance,” says Rutte. “There are no specific recommendations regarding the number of flights of stairs to climb.”
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As for the risk of falling down stairs, it is “no higher than walking on level ground in people without balance problems,” says Morton. “But someone who struggles with balance — because of a medical condition or medication, for example — should do activities that allow sitting, like sitting cycling.”
To stay safe, make sure the stairs you walk are well lit, and wear shoes with reliable traction. Keep in mind that the faster you step, especially while descending, the more likely you are to travel. Grab a handrail to keep your balance if you feel like you’re wobbly. Finally, consider walking with a partner or group.
If you decide to go it alone, there is one final issue to consider.
For decades, I worried that an unsuspecting neighbor might be upset at the sight of a stranger in the stairwell sweating, panting, and swaying with insane abandon. So before you hit the stairs, be prepared to make your presence known.
“You are absolutely safe,” I would assure fellow travelers who came across me. “Just do some exercise here.”
Do you have a fitness question? e-mail [email protected] We may answer your question in a future column.
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