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  • Writer's pictureJackie

Don't Skip the Stairs

—Taking Them Boosts Fitness—

We hear a lot about the importance (and craze!) of tracking our daily steps, but rarely do we hear that we should take a bunch of them on the stairs. What? Did someone say stairs? We kind of dread them, don't we? Or maybe we just see them as that bit of drudgery between the basement laundry room and second floor bedroom where all the closets are. But climbing stairs is a basic "activity of daily living," and surrendering their use can sadly represent a first "step" (see what I did there?) towards physical decline. And just a note: You need not be "older" to experience this.

Don't get me wrong. If you CANNOT use stairs because of injury, illness, or a chronic condition that has caused your doctor to say skip them, then that's a different situation. But if you're just partial to elevators or ranch homes, then consider looking for opportunities to climb a few flights a day. Just remember that, at first, even a couple of flights can leave a person huffing and puffing. Ironically, that’s exactly one reason to weave them into our routines!

By working stairs into our workouts or just using them more frequently on a daily basis, we can potentially improve health and quality of life. Think about this...

Gravity Works for Us by Working Against Us

Because stair climbing involves some serious vertical work against gravity, it can really challenge and improve cardiorespiratory fitness. (Hence the initial huffing & puffing prior to becoming conditioned.) Perhaps one of the most challenging "activities of daily living," even people who regularly work out may feel their heart rates pound a bit. In fact, some experts estimate that climbing stairs is twice as taxing as brisk walking. This may explain why, when people stop taking the stairs, they may practically find themselves UNABLE to at some point.

Extra Effort Equates to Higher Calorie Burn

Though you should begin gradually (if you're doing it as a new workout), stair climbing can significantly boost calorie expenditure. According to Duke University, you will burn 8-11 calories a minute while climbing stairs. For me, this compares pretty closely to an intense bout on the elliptical (or to kickboxing on the deck while the neighbors chuckle). Of course, using stairs periodically throughout the day nudges spent calories upward, too.

Specific Benefits Linked to Older Adults

In a study of older adults who followed a regular stair climbing regimen, subjects exhibited lower resting and exercise heart rates, lower perceived exertion, and improved dynamic balance. Experts suggested this could also lower fall risk, a major mortality risk for older adults.

One BIG Benefit: Lower Mortality Risk

Findings published in 2019 by the Harvard Health Alumni Study, which involved 8,000 men between the ages of 65-71, revealed an association between climbing more floors of stairs and lower mortality. This might be something to consider when deciding whether or not to "downsize to a ranch," as many of us do later in life.

Intense Challenge with Low Impact

Although some people do choose to run the stairs, most of us can get an intense workout by simply walking up stairs, which means we can push heart rate without pounding joints. At the same time, you'll experience enough impact to protect bone density. Specifically, also according to Duke University, "There is a strong association between stair climbing and bone density in post-menopausal women."

Excellent Mode of Cross Training

For all of these reasons, stair climbing stands as an excellent alternative workout when you want or need to mix things up. It can especially complement a swimming regimen, since it introduces a good deal of gravity back into your workout.

As with any activity, some practical tips and cautions apply. If you’re planning to tackle the stairs more frequently & vigorously, follow these guidelines.

Consult your doctor if you have serious health issues of any kind, especially if they involve your cardiovascular system or joints. In fact, you should consult your physician before embarking on ANY new exercise program.

Start gradually and pace yourself, taking “lower interval” breaks on landings or as needed by gently marching or stepping in place.

Avoid “dragging” yourself up the stairs by the handrail. Pump both arms to incorporate upper body and to create momentum. Also be sure to place your entire foot on each step.

Control momentum on the descent to avoid undue stress on knees and ankles.

Be sure to wear proper athletic shoes that will provide plenty of support and cushioning. This is true of any workout, of course, but you'll especially appreciate them a few flights into this type of workout!

Happy climbing, my friends. Catch you at the top!

Photo by Sindre Strøm from Pexels


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