I started climbing stairs in my building a couple of weeks ago and began writing about the experience shortly thereafter. You can read Stair Climbing Part One and Stair Climbing Part Two if you want to catch up.
In the past few weeks I have spoken with neighbors and readers about their stair climbing experience and in the process as many questions have been raised as answered. I went back to my friends at the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) for more info.
I was lucky enough to get Henry N. Williford, Ed.D., FACSM, HFS, Department Head Physical Education/Exercise Science to give us some further observations. Mr. Williford is also the co-author with Michele Olson, Ph.D., FACSM of the ACSM brochure Selecting and Effectively Using an Elliptical Trainer or Stair Climber which is available free at the link and contains a super rundown on using these machines.
Following is a list of my questions and his answers:
How does actual stair climbing compare with the machines? Is one more effective, healthier, safer?
Williford: The energy costs of stair climbing are based on the weight of the person, height of the step, and speed of stepping. There are stepping machines that are used for fitness development, and groups such as firefighters use the devices to evaluate job performance. Generally the stepping machines move at a designated rate and the person must keep up with the machine. With treadmills or other devices the individual tends to be traveling on a flatter surface, unless the device is elevated. As the incline goes up, the energy cost goes up greatly. I have not seen any data on a comparison of health or safety. The benefits of physical activity are generally based on the total amount of work the person does. The more work or energy spent the greater the benefit. The ACSM has appropriate guidelines for individuals of different fitness levels and risk factors.
As I usually do about 15 flights in around five minutes, I was interested in whether or not this was beneficial. I asked, Is there a minimum time required to benefit from stair climbing? Is five minutes a session enough?
Williford: Five minutes does not meet the minimal ACSM guidelines for health. Individuals can do multiple 5 minute segments throughout the day to meet the daily 30 minute daily recommendation. Intense exercise 3 days for shorter durations may be appropriate. However, any exercise is better than none.
Is there a difference in physical benefits between climbing 15 flights of stairs straight up vs. 15 flights by climbing three and and then descending two. I read some place on the web that a good way to climb stairs for a beginner (me) is to go up three flights and then down two and continue with that.
Williford: The energy cost of going down is approximately 1/3 of climbing up. So the person would use more energy going up as compared to down. Going down is what is called eccentric exercise. There is less energy use, but a greater risk of muscle soreness.
Speaking of down, is it a good idea to walk down stairs, or is it better, safer to take the elevator?
Williford: Avoid the elevator. Going down stairs can add to the total amount of work. Always use caution.
In conclusion, as regular readers know, I am a bicycle rider here in Chicago so I was interested in the effects stair climbing might have on my biking. I rode for the first time in the past few weeks yesterday after climbing stairs regularly in that period. I was absolutely aware of further strength in my legs to the point that I found myself checking the gear shift because I thought I was riding in too low a gear. So, anecdotally, I can attest that a just couple of weeks of climbing stairs has added to my strength pedaling the bike.