How climbing stairs can help you live longer

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Researchers say climbing stairs instead of taking the elevator is good for your heart,. Igor Alecsander/Getty Images
  • Researchers report that stair climbers reduce their risk of dying from cardiovascular disease by 39% compared to people who don’t use stairs.
  • They say climbing stairs likely benefits the heart because it combines cardiovascular and resistance exercise.
  • Experts say more study is needed to determine whether health benefits increase alongside frequency of stair climbing.

Take the stairs — it could prolong your life.

That’s the conclusion of United Kingdom researchers who are reporting that climbing stairs dramatically reduces the risk of dying of any cause and particularly cuts the risk of dying from cardiovascular disease.

Their findings, which haven’t been published yet in a peer reviewed journal, were presented at ESC Preventive Cardiology 2024, a scientific congress of the European Society of Cardiology (ESC).

“If you have the choice of taking the stairs or the lift, go for the stairs as it will help your heart,” said Dr. Sophie Paddock, a study author and a faculty member at the University of East Anglia and Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital Foundation Trust in the United Kingdom, in a press statement. “Even brief bursts of physical activity have beneficial health impact and short bouts of stair climbing should be an achievable target to integrate into daily routines.”

Paddock and her colleagues conducted a meta-analysis of nine studies on the health benefits of stair climbing.

The studies included a total of 480,479 participants, with a fairly even split between males and females. Ages ranged from 35 to 84 years old.

The study population included healthy participants as well as those with a previous history of heart attack or peripheral arterial disease.

The researchers reported that participants who climbed stairs had a 24% reduced risk of dying during the study period compared to those who did not climb stairs.

The stairclimbers also had a 39% lower risk of dying from cardiovascular disease and a lower overall risk of developing cardiovascular disease or suffering a heart attack, heart failure, or having a stroke.

“The substantial reductions in all-cause and cardiovascular mortality associated with regular stair climbing underscore the profound impact that even brief bouts of physical activity can have on our health,” Dr. Adedapo Iluyomade, a preventive cardiologist at the Miami Cardiac & Vascular Institute in Florida, told Medical News Today.

“These findings reinforce the notion that every bit of movement counts when it comes to optimizing cardiovascular well-being and longevity, and often the greatest impact comes when moving the needle from nothing to something,” added Iluyomade, who was not involved in the research.

James Cunningham, a senior coach at online health and fitness company Total Shape, told Medical News Today that stair climbing “is a fantastic form of exercise that can be easily incorporated into daily life. It’s a form of resistance and cardiovascular exercise rolled into one, working your heart, lungs, and muscles simultaneously. This dual benefit is likely one of the reasons why it’s associated with longevity.”

“Stair climbing may be a particularly effective form of exercise for several reasons,” added IIuyomade. “First, it is a weight-bearing activity that engages multiple muscle groups, including the quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, and calves. This type of resistance training can help maintain lean muscle mass, which is crucial for metabolic health and glucose regulation. Second, the short bursts of high-intensity effort required during stair climbing can improve cardiorespiratory fitness by challenging the heart and lungs. This intermittent style of exercise has been shown to boost VO2 max, a key marker of cardiovascular efficiency. Finally, stair climbing is a functional movement pattern that mimics activities of daily living, promoting balance, coordination, and mobility.”

Dr. Eric J Hegedus, an orthopaedic specialist as well as a professor and the chair of the Department of Rehabilitation Sciences at the Tufts University School of Medicine in Massachusetts, said stair climbing has clear advantages over walking — another popular form of low-impact exercise.

“Stair climbing increases your heart rate over level walking and definitely over stationary activities like sitting, taking an elevator, or taking an escalator,” Hegedus, who wasn’t involved in the study, told Medical News Today.

“The increase in heart rate is both safe and healthy,” he added, while cautioning, “It is important that you have the strength and balance to climb stairs.”

Hegedus added that almost any exercise is better than none when it comes to improving health.

“For ages, we have been saying that exercise is medicine and it’s truly beneficial for so many of the medical issues that plague our society right now,” he said. “If climbing stairs works for you, then great. If not, find something you enjoy and do that. It doesn’t matter if it’s walking, running, yoga, weightlifting, or pickleball — just move.”

“To incorporate more stair climbing into one’s routine, I would recommend starting small and gradually increasing the frequency and duration of stair sessions,” said IIuyomade. “For example, someone could begin by taking the stairs instead of the elevator at work or at home, even if it’s just for one or two flights. Over time, they could aim to climb more flights or to do so at a brisker pace.”

“Setting specific goals, such as climbing a certain number of steps per day or week, can provide motivation and a sense of accomplishment,” he added. “It’s also important to listen to one’s body and to take breaks or modify the intensity as needed.”

Paddock said the research suggests that cardiovascular benefits increase alongside greater frequency of stair-climbing, but that correlation needs to be confirmed via future studies.

“Based on these results, we would encourage people to incorporate stair climbing into their day-to-day lives,” said Paddock. “So, whether at work, home, or elsewhere, take the stairs.”

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