Stair Climbing Workouts: Health Benefits, How to Get Started, and How to Get Better (Everyday Health)

Posted: Feb 28, 2023 in In the News

This article originally appeared in Everyday Health on February 28, 2023.


Stair Climbing Workouts: Health Benefits, How to Get Started, and How to Get Better

By Jessica Migala

If briskly climbing a flight of stairs (or a few) leaves you winded, it's no surprise. Stair climbing is a legitimate exercise — and an internationally recognized sport — that can improve your fitness.

Luckily, you don’t need to climb to the top of a skyscraper to get a good sweat on; stair workouts can be accessible at the gym, a park, or in your home.

What Is Stair Climbing?

Stair climbing is a type of vertical training, says PJ Glassey, CSCS, the founder of X Gym in Kirkland, Washington, and a nationally ranked tower runner. As the name implies, it involves ascending (walking up, or, if you’re more advanced, running up) flights of steps. It can be a type of everyday activity, exercise, or sport. Tower running, for example, is an organized, competitive sport where athletes run up the stairways of tall buildings, such as skyscrapers, according to a review of the sport published in the March 2020 International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.

These stairs can be located in a stairwell of a building, outside at a park or local stadium, or in a gym on a stair climbing machine, which simulates climbing stairs. This activity can also be done on a set of stairs at your house.

Stair climbing exercise can be a strenuous, says Alexandra Lempke, PhD, a clinical assistant professor of applied exercise science and the codirector of the Michigan Performance Research Laboratory at the University of Michigan School of Kinesiology in Ann Arbor. When you climb stairs, your heart rate and breathing will increase.

“Stair climbing for exercise targets the cardiovascular and respiratory systems,” Dr. Lempke says. It takes a lot of work to move your body mass vertically against gravity.

The physiological systems targeted during stair climbing also depend on how you’re doing it. For instance, says Lempke, if you’re walking or slowly jogging the stairs, this lower-intensity movement will be more of an aerobic endurance exercise.

Stair sprinting, on the other hand, is an anaerobic exercise that targets muscular power, she says. Anaerobic exercise is when muscles use glucose for energy rather than oxygen (which occurs in aerobic exercise), per the International Sports Sciences Association; a HIIT workout is an example of anaerobic exercise.

In addition, stair climbing also heavily recruits muscles of your posterior chain — the glutes and calves — as well as hip flexors and muscles in the ankle, which are required to raise your foot up onto each stair, explains Lempke. So the workout will help strengthen all those muscles.

Potential Health Benefits of Stair Climbing Workouts

Stair climbing can deliver a lot of benefits for health and well-being, whether you’re doing it as part of a formal workout or not. Here are some of those potential benefits.

Improved Metabolic Health

Metabolic syndrome is a cluster of conditions — including high blood pressure, blood sugar, and cholesterol levels — that increases your risk for heart disease, stroke, and diabetes, per Mayo Clinic. It's important for your overall health to reduce your risk.

Some data suggest that using stairs in your everyday life, such as by walking up a flight or two instead of taking the elevator, is a burst of intense exercise that may stave off metabolic disease.

In a study of 782 women whose average age was 58, researchers asked: Do you climb stairs daily? Those who didn’t were 72 percent more likely to have metabolic syndrome than self-reported daily stair climbers. (The researchers point out there are limitations, given that the stair climbing data was self-reported and other factors could be at play.)

Other research that looked at older men found that over a 12-year follow-up period, those who climbed at least 35 floors per week were 16 percent less likely to die from any cause than those who climbed fewer than 10 floors weekly.

Better Cardiorespiratory Fitness

Improving metabolic health in terms of lower risks of heart problems and other complications, also by definition improves fitness.

You can feel your heart working harder and the fire in your lungs when you ascend stairs. And that’s provoking important changes in your cardiorespiratory system that will make physical activities, like running and walking, feel easier.

In a small study of 31 young sedentary women, those who participated in a stair interval workout of three sets of 20 sprints ascending stairs three times a week for six weeks improved their Vo2 max (an indication of cardiorespiratory fitness) by 12 percent. Researchers concluded that stair climbing was a time-efficient way to improve fitness, including for beginners.

Boosted Energy and Mood

“Stair climbing gives a nice endorphin high,” says Glassey. That boost in feelings of vigor can keep people coming back to the workout. In a study of young adults, men who performed three one-minute stair climbing intervals felt more energetic and less tense and tired than they did in a control session (no stair climbing). The study was also done in women, but they did not experience this benefit. The more intense the stair climb intervals were, the more the men's mood improved. These heart-pounding workouts may increase blood flow to the brain or activate certain brain regions related to cognitive performance, the researchers noted in their paper.




Resources We Love

Best Fitness Organizations

American Council on Exercise

If you’re looking for stair exercises for beginners, check out this option to structure a stair workout from ACE, one of the preeminent sources for fitness information. Experienced stair climbers can check out these ideas for a high-intensity stair workout.

...Read the full article here.

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