Will taking the stairs make a real difference to my health?

Sunday, July 17, 2011 • Chicago, IL 60657


Sprinting up the 1,576 steps of the Empire State Building, as participants in the annual Empire State Run-p have done each year since 1978, certainly qualifies as a vigorous workout. But you don’t have to work in a skyscraper – or enter stair-climbing races – to get the benefits of a stair workout. Researchers in Ireland have been studying the benefits of dashing up the stairs periodically over the course of a workday, and they’ve observed surprising fitness gains. “I think they key thing here,” says Colin Boreham, a professor at the University College Dublin Institute for Sport and Health, “is that stair-climbing is one of the few everyday activities at a moderate to high intensity that one can do surreptitiously without having to change, use special equipment or look foolish.”

            Competitive stair-climbs for charity are a growing phenomenon. The TowerRunning.com website (motto: ”Take the stair sand not the elevator”) lists well over 100 events around the world, and Italian scientists have analyzed the physics and physiology of these events in a study of “skyscraper running” that appeared in 2010 in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports. Among the notable insights of the study is that using the handrails to haul yourself up turns the activity into a full-body workout much like rowing, resulting in a global, maximal effort.” About 80 percent of the power you exert goes to raising your body against the force of gravity, 5 percent goes to whipping your limbs back and forth, and the remaining 15 percent goes toward running tiny semicircles at each landing.

            Because of its high intensity, stair climbing offers a time-efficient workout: the record for climbing up the Empire State Building is just nine  minutes and 33 seconds. However, Boreham and his colleagues have found that a much more moderate approach can also pay dividends. They asked eight undergraduate women climbing a 199-step staircase twice a day, five days a week. They climbed at a moderate rate of 90 steps a minute, so that it took about two minutes to reach the top. By the end of the program, they were climbing five times a day – not all at once, but scattered through the day – for a daily total of just over 10 minutes of exercise a day.

            Compared to a group of matched controls, the stair-climbers increased their aerobic fitness by 17 percent and reduced harmful LDL Cholesterol by 8 percent, results that compare favorably to taking a half-hour daily walk. The researchers are no investigating whether the protocol can be transferred to older adults, using a stepping machine rather than staircases. “Because it’s at such a high intensity, it accomplishes health adaptations in a shorter period,” Boreham says, “which is handy if you like your exercise in short bites.”

            Standard exercise guidelines suggest that bouts of exercise should last t least 10 minutes in order to produce meaningful gains, although recent research into “high-intensity interval training” supports the idea that you can get by with short bursts if they’re intense enough. The gains in Boreham’s study are modest enough that you shouldn’t view taking the stairs as the only thing needed o stay fit. But they offer encouraging evidence that simple decisions to be more active in your daily life can add up to measurable health benefits – even if you don’t climb the Empire State Building.