Regular readers know that I have been an avid bicycle rider for years. I logged over 7000 miles in the year just ended. And, I have not stopped riding. I have, however, begun a new exercise, for me – climbing stairs.
How come? Well, the only drawback to cycling I know of is that it is not weight-bearing. So, while the aerobic activity benefits my cardiovascular system greatly, I get no benefits for my skeletal system. I need both and I just can’t get into weight workouts.
An additional benefit of stair climbing over bike riding is that you can do it indoors so the weather conditions do not present a problem. Having just suffered through historic cold weather with much of the country, this is particularly relevant now. While current temps here in Chicago range in the mid 30’s, there is still a lot of snow, ice and slush around that makes for dangerous biking conditions.
So, what about climbing stairs? It burns more calories than running and doesn’t beat up your legs as much as running does. RunSociety says, “When you stair climb for exercise, you burn twice the fat in half the time than if you run and three times more than walking. An intense stair-climbing exercise session will produce more aerobic benefits in a shorter amount of time than running or walking. One hour of stair climbing will burn approximately 1000 calories.”
Nonetheless, you can climb at your own pace and still get a good workout.
A New York Times article by Dr. Harvey Simon on the heath sciences technology faculty at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and founding editor of the Harvard Men’s Health Watch, wrote, “What’s so special about climbing stairs? Researchers in Canada answered the question by monitoring 17 healthy male volunteers with an average age of 64 while they walked on the level, lifted weights or climbed stairs. Stair climbing was the most demanding. It was twice as taxing as brisk walking on the level and 50 percent harder than walking up a steep incline or lifting weights. And peak exertion was attained much faster climbing stairs than walking, which is why nearly everyone huffs and puffs going up stairs, at least until their “second wind” kicks in after a few flights.”
One of the things I love about riding my bike is being outside and enjoying the fresh air and experiencing nature. In good weather, I plan to go for walks and find stairs to climb in the fresh air, too, when the good weather returns.
Dr. Simon cited, “The Harvard Alumni Study found that men who average at least eight flights a day enjoy a 33 percent lower mortality rate than men who are sedentary — and that’s even better than the 22 percent lower death rate men earned by walking 1.3 miles a day.”
Although I often ride long distances on my bike, I rarely go very far from my home. I ride in circuits of a couple of miles and just do them over and over. I have begun doing the same thing with the stairs. Instead of going up or down for a while and then turning around, I decided to start with five flights up, then come back down, then repeat it. This way I am always in control of the exercise and if I find my muscles stressed, I am never far from my starting point.
One caveat I have learned is that while walking down stairs is significantly easier than climbing, and it uses different muscles, it can be hard on your knees, ankles or hips. So, if you have problems with any of those joints, you can walk up and then take the elevator back down.
An example of the load stair climbing puts on your cardiovascular system is evident from my heart rates. Normally, I have a resting heart rate just below 50 beats per minute (bpm). I wore a monitor when I did the stairs for the first time. After walking up five flights at a normal pace, my heart rate rose to just over 100 bpm. Then I walked back down the five flights and checked my pulse again. It had gone down to around 60 bpm. So, a mere five flights up was enough to challenge my heart rate. On the other hand, my heart rate recovered well on the walk down. I am looking forward to seeing the results of stair climbing over the next few months.
Finally, I have read elsewhere on the web that people who climbed stairs regularly for exercise lost pounds and inches from their waistlines and increased their HDL cholesterol (good cholesterol) readings while decreasing their LDL (bad cholesterol) readings. These are real tangible benefits.
For more on this important topic, check out: Stair climbing is good for you – Part Two – ACSM which includes insights from the American College of Sports Medicine.
I would be love to hear from readers who may have also tried stair-climbing.