Health/Sci-TechLifestyleVOLUME 19 ISSUE # 29

Step up to better health: The case for taking the stairs

Stair climbing has long been touted as a feasible, free way to increase physical activity. After all, it’s accessible for a wide range of abilities and ages, and you can reap the benefit without changing into gym clothes or even leaving your home – if your house or apartment building has stairs. The activity even gave rise to a fitness fad in the 1980s, when the StairMaster skyrocketed to popularity.

But this isn’t rooted in common sense alone. Evidence is piling up that the simple act of climbing stairs – and not even that many stairs – can significantly improve your heart health and longevity.

The latest is an analysis of nine studies that followed nearly half a million people and found that climbing stairs is linked to a 24% lower risk of early death from any cause, and a 39% lower likelihood of death from cardiovascular disease, which includes heart attacks, heart failure, and strokes. The findings, which have not been published yet, were presented at the European Society of Cardiology’s Preventive Cardiology 2024 conference in April. Other research has linked regular stair climbing with a lower risk of metabolic syndrome (a term referring to several conditions that raise your chance of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes), improved fitness of the heart and blood vessels, and lower body weight.

Stair climbing “targets both the cardiovascular and respiratory systems,” said Vasiliki Tsampasian, MD, PhD, co-author of the new study and a clinical research fellow at the University of East Anglia in the U.K. Of course, climbing stairs also burns calories – up to four times as many as walking, said another co-author of the study, Vassilios Vassiliou, MD, PhD, a clinical professor of cardiac medicine at the University of East Anglia. A 170-pound man could burn well over 500 calories in an hour, while a 140-pound woman might torch 450-plus, according to the Compendium of Physical Activities, a tool developed by researchers to create a standard way to show how exercise and other movement affect the body.

The researchers admit it was hard to quantify how much climbing is needed to see health benefits. Those nine studies varied in how many stairs people climbed, and how fast. “But what could be seen is that the more stair climbing that was done, the better, independently of other physical activity,” said Vassiliou.

Up to a point, that is. One of the studies suggested that when subjects climbed six flights of stairs daily (about 60 steps), the benefits plateaued. “So, for the purposes of exercise prescription,” said Vassiliou, “reaching six flights daily would reduce overall and cardiac mortality.” (That number aligns with findings from a large observational study published last year that linked five-plus flights of daily stair climbing with a lower risk of atherosclerosis, the buildup of fats, cholesterol, and other substances in and on the artery walls.) It might help to think of taking the stairs not as exercise but as a lifestyle tweak.