When it comes to daily activities, there are a few things you can go out of your way to do that can gradually boost your fitness level. One of the simplest changes is taking the stairs. We know it can seem like a daunting task, especially if you work or live in a high rise. However, you will reap major benefits in a short amount of time.
“Stairs are so helpful for improving heart health, circulation, physical activity and exercise in general; every added amount of exercise — big or small — that you can do will make you healthier,” explains nationally recognized health and fitness expert Stephanie Mansour, CEO of Step It Up With Steph. “I encourage all of my private weight-loss clients to take the stairs whenever possible so that they are using their muscles and training their brain that movement is just part of their lives — not a burden or a chore or a hard workout.”
Just as with any exercise, taking the stairs is definitely something to do gradually. If you usually take the elevator up to the 25th floor, you don’t want to climb all of those flights in just one day. Start with a few floors at a time and take the elevator the rest of the way, progressively adding another floor at a time until you are regularly able to climb the whole way.
“Before people start doing stairs, they should be aware that it’s the climbing up the stairs that is the beneficial part, but going downstairs can actually be really hard on muscles, joints and connective tissue,” adds PJ Glassey, certified strength and conditioning specialist, CEO of X Gym and author of “Cracking Your Calorie Code.” “The best place to do stairs is in a building where you can take the elevator back down, but if that’s not possible, phasing into it slowly and building up over time is best.”
If you are free of pre-existing injuries — especially to your knees — and are ready to take on the task of climbing stairs on a regular basis, here are a few of the benefits you’ll enjoy:
IT’S AN EFFICIENT WORKOUT
By taking the stairs you can turn a commute you would already be doing into exercise. In addition, the extra effort of going up stairs can replace a longer cardio workout at the gym.
“By my calculations, from personal experience in the research I’ve read, 5 minutes of casual stairs is equal to about 20 minutes of regular cardio exercise in a gym,” reveals Glassey, “and 5 minutes of intense stairs (like in a stair race competition where exertion is 100%), is equivalent to about an hour of regular cardio exercise. It’s the vertical component that makes it unique and so much more effective and time efficient than most other forms of cardio.”
In fact, climbing stairs is such an efficient workout that requires little time and no additional equipment that researchers at McMaster University found short, intense bursts of stair climbing — a time commitment of 30 minutes per week — is an adequate amount of exercise.
IT BUILDS CARDIOVASCULAR HEALTH
We often think of cardio as a workout that requires hitting the road or gym for a serious sweat session. However, you don’t have to sweat to strengthen your heart.
“In order to live a healthier life and reduce your risk of heart disease and stroke, we need to move the big muscles between our waist and our knees for at least 30 minutes every day,” explains Dr. Sarah M. Speck, cardiologist and internist located in Seattle, Washington. “This kind of activity — when done on a regular basis along with a healthy diet — will lower blood pressure, manage weight, lower our level of stress hormones throughout the day, improve sleep, improve blood sugar and cholesterol metabolism and improve bone health. So no, you don’t have to sweat to help your heart, you just have to move.”
Dr. Speck points out that literature suggests you can do 10 minutes three times daily and it can be just as beneficial as 30 minutes done at once. She just stresses the activity has to be done regularly.
The simple act of taking the stairs to your office or at a shopping center can help prevent future heart events. This is because it helps you keep your blood pressure and cholesterol at healthy levels, as well as reducing the chance of developing diabetes or unhealthy weight gain.
“Most people don’t know that 80% of whether we will get heart disease is under our control,” adds Dr. Speck. “Only 20% is due to our genes or family history.”
Before you start any vigorous cardio you should see a doctor, but you don’t have to run straight to the cardiologist. Dr. Speck notes that if you don’t have any worrisome symptoms, you just want an annual checkup that involves “knowing your numbers: blood pressure, blood sugar, cholesterol and triglycerides, weight, body mass index (BMI) and waist measurement.”
YOU’LL REAP MENTAL BENEFITS, TOO
Exercise boosts more than just your physical health; it also gives you mental health benefits. Some benefits include improved attitude and a reduction in stress.
“The biggest benefit will be the changes that start in their brain and their attitude,” shares Glassey. “Every time someone makes a decision to start a new healthy habit, especially something physical, it ends up being what is referred to as a ‘keystone habit,’ which makes starting other habits easier — kind of like a domino effect.”
Besides this brain training, there are some scientific benefits as well. Researchers at Concordia University found that the more flights of stairs a person climbs — combined with the number of years of school completed — the slower their brain ages.
“There already exist many ‘Take the stairs’ campaigns in office environments and public transportation centers,” said lead scientist Jason Steffener in the release about the study, which was published in the journal Neurobiology of Aging. “This study shows that these campaigns should also be expanded for older adults, so that they can work to keep their brains young.”
IT’S EASY TO PROGRESS
Of course climbing stairs can be a way for you to get to your office every day, but if you’ve found a leisurely pace has become a breeze, there are some ways you can step it up (pun intended) and make it an even greater workout. The easiest — and most obvious — way to do this would be to increase your speed and go up the stairs faster than usual. A less obvious way, however, would be to take the stairs two at a time. It’s a harder workout disguised as taking fewer steps.
“If you’re looking to build muscle, take the stairs two at a time,” advises Mansour. “Lead with your right leg and step up with your right leg, then have your left foot meet your right. Take another step with the right foot, and have the left meet it. Continue on for 10 reps. Then, use your left leg to lead, and have your right foot meet it.”
Why does this work? Mansour says it is because you fatigue your right leg (including your quads and glutes) and then do the same to your left.
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YOUR LEGS WILL GET STRONGER
Speaking of your legs, you will be working multiple muscle groups on your prolonged trek up the stairs. Even better, you will be building muscle and balancing out joints at the same time.
“The biggest benefits physically will be building, strengthening and toning your quads, butt and calves,” affirms Mansour, “and helping to stabilize your ankle and knee joints.”
To work your legs properly, you have to understand the proper stair-climbing technique. Just as with walking and running, maintaining the right posture and foot placement can help you build strength evenly — avoiding overcompensation injuries — and keep you healthy, longer.
“Press down through the heel; many people can press down through their toes and therefore the knee will go over the ankle which is not a good position for the knee joint,” stresses Mansour. “By focusing on pressing down through the heel, you’re much less likely to overbend at the knee joint. You will also be engaging the back of the leg so that this is a balanced exercise, rather than just focusing on the front of the leg or the back of the leg.”