Climbing the stairs in an apartment or office building is rarely an exercise routine. But it should. Numerous studies have shown that stair climbing, even short but intense, strengthens muscles, increases energy and improves overall cardiorespiratory fitness. Climbing the stairs every day can even reduce the risk of metabolic syndrome, combined diabetes, high blood pressure and obesity.
“Supporting at home is not as effective as the same gym-based protocol,” researchers at the University of Birmingham in England concluded after observing 52 sedentary women aged 18 to 45 – one group climbed the stairs at home, the other did the same in a gym – to five days a week, progressing from two ascents a day to five, over eight weeks. “Walking up and down the house reduces health risks at a low cost to the individual.”
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Why stairs are a good exercise
Another study, in the Journal of Aging and Physical Activity, called stair climbing an “accessible and time-efficient mode of exercise,” particularly a “promising intervention strategy” for improving cognitive performance in older adults.
As it happens, about 39 million Americans live in apartment buildings, many of which are high-rises with lots of steps to climb, according to the National Apartment Association. Office buildings and shopping centers also offer the possibility of stairs. And the race up the stairs in the skyscraper – known as the tower walk – gained recognition as an organized competitive sport.
Alvin Morton, assistant professor of exercise science and rehabilitation at Merrimack College in North Andover, Mass., walks up and down the steps of an apartment building for 20 minutes at a clip, wearing a weighted vest to intensify exertions.
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“Qualifying is minimal moderate activity,” says Morton, a member of the American Sports Medicine Fitness Index Advisory Board. “And you have a stairwell in your apartment building. Besides, who has time to go to the gym and take a shower and leave the kids for so long?
Every time you go up, you work a lot of leg muscles. In the process, you also lift your entire body weight, against the pull of gravity, up to 10 inches. Your muscles need to generate enough power to do it, and even more so if you’re moving fast. This is known in scientific terms as vertical displacement and is considered a version of resistance training.
Climbing stairs in everyday or natural environments for exercise can become popular, says Melissa Wehnert Roti, professor and director of the Exercise Science Program at Westfield State University in Westfield, Mass. “With the pandemic, more people are quarantined. to see how they can work in a home environment,” he said.
My winter climbing training proved to be very rewarding. I can go out in absolute privacy, without braving the cold outside, much less shelling out the annual gym membership fee.
Year after year, decade after decade, my commitment to our neighbors is paying off. It increases speed, strength and stamina – and especially footwork – to play basketball and tennis in the warm months. Why bother with a StairMaster? (Full disclosure: Last year, my stair-climbing adventure ended when I moved to a one-story house in a warmer climate.)
How to start a stair climbing regimen
If you decide to turn your stairs into a home gym, take it easy, experts advise.
Start with just a few floors in each outing, taking one step at a time at a slow tempo. Stand straight, shoulders back, chin down, because when you are tired it is easy to get tired. Build in relaxation. If you’re big on metrics, apps such as StepJockey, Stairforce and StairClimbs can track the number of floors you climb in a given period of time.
If you go for a long time – say, more than 15 minutes – slow down. But if you choose to be quick, keep it brief. Swing your arms. Once you get the hang of it, you can raise the difficulty level and go faster and longer. You can either use a backpack or a wrist weight.
“Climbing the stairs is a good exercise for anyone, at any age, to exercise with good balance,” says Roti. “There is no specific recommendation on how many flights of stairs to take.”
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As for the risk of falling on the stairs, it is “not higher than walking on the ground level in people without balance problems,” Morton said. “But people who struggle with balance – due to medical conditions or medications, for example – should do activities that allow them to sit, such as a recumbent bicycle.”
But to stay safe, make sure the stairs you’re on are well-lit, and wear shoes you can trust. Remember that the faster you walk, especially when going downhill, the more you will travel. Hold onto the railing to keep your balance if you feel yourself swaying. Finally, consider walking with a partner or group.
If you decide to go alone, there is one last problem to consider.
For decades, I’ve worried that my unsuspecting neighbors might be shocked to see a stranger on the stairs sweating, panting and boogying with the abandon of a lunatic. So before you hit the stairs, be prepared to explain your presence.
“You’re safe,” I would assure fellow travelers who happened upon me. “A little exercise here.”
Do you have a fitness question? Email [email protected] and we can answer your questions in the next column.
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