Can climbing stairs really improve your health?
Over the past decade, researchers have discovered that short-duration, high-intensity physical activity can produce outsized positive effects on cardiorespiratory fitness. Some people refer to this general approach as high-intensity interval training (HIIT) or sprint interval training (SIT) or vigorous intermittent lifestyle physical activity (VILPA). One practical approach for many people, especially those who live or work in a multi-story building, is to climb stairs quickly.
Climb stairs and build cardiorespiratory fitness
Canadian researchers investigated the efficacy of brief intense stair climbing as a practical model of sprint interval training to improve cardiorespiratory fitness. In one study, 31 sedentary, normal-weight young women performed sprint interval training that involved three 20-second “all-out” efforts of either continuously ascending stairs during three days per week for six weeks. Peak oxygen uptake increased by 12 percent. Brief, intense stair climbing is a practical, time-efficient strategy to improve cardiorespiratory fitness in previously untrained women.
Martin Gibala and colleagues at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada, investigated the ability of brief, high-intensity exercise periods to improve cardiorespiratory fitness. A recent study featured “exercise snacks” of stair-climbing. Twelve, sedentary, apparently healthy young adults participated in a study that compared the effects of three repetitions of “all-out” climbing a three-flight stairwell (60 steps) for 20 seconds. Rest periods of 1-4 hours separated the three exercise bouts. Participants repeated the stair climbing protocol three time per week. A group of 12 non-trained persons comprised the control group. After six weeks of training, the training group increased maximum oxygen uptake from that at baseline by 5 percent, while that of the control group decreased slightly. Maximum cycling power output of the training group increased by 12 percent, while that of the control group deceased marginally. People who live or work in multi-story office buildings could easily adopt this protocol with minimal time commitment. What’s keeping you from giving this a try?
Climb stairs and live longer
Regular stair climbing counts as physical activity and can lower your risk of heart disease. The Harvard Alumni Health Study offered a unique opportunity to study the health benefits of stair climbing. Researchers used data for 8,874 participants with a median age of 65 years to see if stair climbing data collected in 1988 predicted risk of all-cause mortality during a median follow-up of 12 years. After accounting for confounding factors, such as age, smoking, and walking, and compared to participants who reported climbing fewer than 10 floors per week, participants who reported climbing more than 10 floors per week showed progressively lower risk of all-cause mortality as the number of floors climbed increased to 35 or more per week. Participants who climbed 35 or more floors per week had 16 percent lower risk of all-cause mortality than participants who climbed less than 10 floors per week. If you work or live in a building with stairs, using the stairs rather than the elevator may help you live longer.
Climb stairs and avoid insulin resistance
Breaking up long periods of sitting improves markers of metabolic health. Given that many Americans avoid extended periods of physical activity, might brief periods of strenuous physical activity improve their metabolic markers? Researchers in British Columbia conducted a cross-over study with 11 women with overweight. In phase 1, participants sat quietly for 9 hours moving only to eat and visit the bathroom. In phase 2, participants sat quietly for one hour then engaged in eight 15-30 seconds of rapid stair climbing every 60 minutes. Each participant completed both phases in a random order. In both phases, participants ate small (530 calorie), high-glycemic index meals at times 0, 3 hours, and 6 hours. Compared to the prolonged sitting condition, the stair-climbing condition led to significantly reduced post-meal total insulin and non-esterified fatty acids but not total blood sugar or triglyceride. Thus, breaking up extended periods of sitting with brief, strenuous periods of exercise might help overweight people avoid insulin resistance.
Climb stairs and reduce your risk of the metabolic syndrome
Researchers in the UK used cross-sectional data from 782 participants with an average of 58 years in the Dutch Famine Birth Cohort Study to determine if any amount of stair climbing would predict lower risk of manifesting the metabolic syndrome. Any three of the following four factors (elevated blood sugar, triglycerides, blood pressure, and waist circumference) defined the presence of the metabolic syndrome. Participants responded with either yes or no to the question, “Do you climb stairs daily?” Compared to participants who reported no, those who reported yes had significant 72 percent lower risk of having the metabolic syndrome, after adjusting for confounding factors including physical activity level. Furthermore, not climbing stairs predicted an increased number of metabolic syndrome factors. The energetic demands of stair climbing might lead to reduced blood sugar and/or blood pressure levels thereby lowering risk of having the metabolic syndrome.
Climbing stairs at home might help
Recent research shows that brief, strenuous bouts of strenuous exercise, such as stair climbing at work, can produce significant health benefits, including improved cardiorespiratory fitness and reduced risk of cardiovascular disease. However, the participants in these studies tend to be highly educated and in higher socioeconomic strata compared to the general population, potentially limiting the studies’ relevance to most people. A team of researchers rectified this situation by using data from 280,423 participants with an average of 56 years in the UK Biobank Study. These participants came from 22 assessment centers across England, Wales, and Scotland. Participants self-reported the number of flights of stairs they climbed daily at home (but not elsewhere) over the previous four weeks.
After a median follow-up of 11 years and after adjusting for a host of confounding factors, compared to participants who reported no daily stair climbing, participants who reported climbing six or more flights daily had significant 7-9 percent lower risk of all-cause mortality and 8-12 percent lower risks of cancer-related mortality. Curiously, stair climbing did not predict an expected lower risk of cardiovascular-related mortality. Maybe the intensity of stair climbing was too low for dramatic results. The researchers concluded that unmeasured factors, such as frailty, might have affected the results. Climbing six flights of stairs at home might not be sufficient to confer much if any health advantage. That said, many studies document the beneficial effects of climbing stairs at a rapid pace. If you work or live in a building with stairs, try using the stairs for better health.