What’s a Better Workout: Walking Stairs or Inclines?

Emily Abbate
by Emily Abbate
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What’s a Better Workout: Walking Stairs or Inclines?

There are a few things that are undeniably important for your health: eating a well-balanced diet, drinking a good amount of water, getting quality sleep, and of course, regular movement. A weekly dose of cardio can help with weight loss, as well as yield other science-backed benefits like preventing muscle loss and improving mental clarity.

The good news is there are plenty of different ways to get your heart rate up such as running, swimming, dancing, recreational sports and more. However, one of the easiest and most accessible forms of exercise is walking. When it comes to the difference between climbing stairs and walking on an incline, here’s what you need to know:

THE BENEFITS OF WALKING UP STAIRS

The great thing about stairs is they’re readily available. You can walk up and down flights in your own home or hit the stairclimber inside a gym. One note: Inside your fitness facility, you’ll probably find both a StairMaster and a StepMill. A StepMill is a set of rotating stairs which the user must climb. Think of this similar to steps you may climb inside of your own home. The StairMaster, on the other hand, is much more comparable to an elliptical — where your feet don’t come off of the pedals during your workout.
“Stair climbing can be a very good way to increase lower body strength and improve your cardiovascular condition,” says Rocky Snyder, a certified strength and conditioning specialist. “By stepping up on a higher platform (compared to walking on a flat surface) the impact on the body is reduced. This includes all of the load-bearing joints such as the ankles, knees, hips and spine.”
Science agrees: Incorporating a lower body-focused cardio workout into your routine can help increase your endurance, giving you a 17% bump in VO2 max (the maximum amount of oxygen you can take in during exercise), according to research published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine. Climbing stairs has a MET (which stands for “metabolic equivalent task,”) value of 4.0 at a slow pace and 8.8 at a brisk one, according to the Compendium of Physical Activity. To calculate the number of calories burned, you multiply METs by weight (in kilograms) and time (in hours).

THE BENEFITS OF WALKING HILLS

Similar to stair climbing, walking up an incline reduces the impact on the body. One catch: If you’re doing this on a treadmill, you’ll want to make sure you’re not holding onto the railing, as this lessens the effects of the workout.
“Depending on the grade of incline will determine how high a person needs to lift their stepping leg,” says Snyder. “Compared to stair climbing, walking up an incline may not require as much flexion at the hip or knee. So, for people with joint issues in those areas, they may choose to avoid the stair workout.”
The compendium lists an 8.0 MET value when walking 3.5 mph at a 6% incline.

IS ONE A BETTER WORKOUT?

If you’re looking from a simple caloric perspective, walking up stairs for 30 minutes, a 150-pound person burns 272 calories versus walking uphill, burning 204 calories, according to our calories burned from exercise tool.
However, for some, the low-impact nature of walking up an incline could be a safer, more effective workout, adds Nicole Lombardo, a physical therapist and certified strength and conditioning specialist. For others who are looking for a bit more muscle activation, the stairs could be the winner.
“One is not better than the other,” she says, adding that either of these exercises can safely be done 3–4 times per week. “Your goal should be to ease into a walking program. Start by doing stairs or walking at an incline 1–2 times a week and if you don’t have excessive soreness, either increase the duration of the workout or the frequency, then progress from there.”
Ultimately, you should choose the type of exercise you enjoy most, and, when in doubt, speak with a certified trainer or physical therapist to individualize recommendations.

About the Author

Emily Abbate
Emily Abbate

Emily has written for GQ, Self, Shape and Runner’s World (among others). As a certified personal trainer, run and spin coach, she’s often tackling long runs or lifting heavy things. In addition to that, she’s working on Hurdle, a podcast that talks to badass humans and entrepreneurs who got through a tough time —a hurdle of sorts— by leaning into wellness.

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