The Many Health Benefits of Stair Climbing

Individuals have been using stair climbing as a way to improve their fitness level and build lower extremity strength for decades. Remember the old PT 4000 cardio stairmaster product that took the gym scene by storm back in the early 1980’s? Celebrity trainers have known the benefits of stair climbing too, taking their private clients to places like the Santa Monica stairs for years and giving their clients great workouts as a result.

Take-the-stairs-long-high-stairs-4-198x300Search for a high school or college football stadium near you or an area that has lots of stairs. If you can’t find a stadium look for stair-climbing events online put on by organizations like the American Lung Foundation. Climbing stairs for a workout or for a specific cause or event is a fun and different way to burn a great deal of calories in minimal time, especially if you run them. We like to try and venture to Harvard University’s football stadium in Cambridge every 4-6 weeks (like this weekend) to do just that.

After you have been doing the stairs for a while, you may want to gradually start building up the volume of work that you’re doing by adding in more flights of stairs. You can also make it more of a full body workout as time goes on by adding circuits of body weight exercises such as push-ups, dips, core exercises and other movements in between your stair walking/running. Running or walking stairs will force you to work against gravity (especially at the Harvard stadium) and this is ideal for building not just strength but also power which is ideal for all the runners out there. When you’re walking or running up stadium stairs (especially walking though) the lead leg and foot spend more time in contact with the step. In doing so, the involved leg works more of the stabilizing muscles in the hips, like the gluteus medius, compared to when you run. The same applies to the intrinsic muscles found in the ankle as well as the muscles in the lower leg.

Even at a slow pace, you’ll burn calories two to three times faster climbing stairs compared to walking briskly on level ground. You burn more calories going up a flight of stairs. Research shows you burn less than a third as many calories going down a flight as going up. 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 were sedentary and that’s even better than the 22 percent lower death rate men earned by walking 1.3 miles a day.


Dr. Harvey Simon, associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, reported that researchers in Canada found stair climbing to be more demanding than both walking on a level ground and lifting weights. After having tested 17 healthy males (average age of 64 years), the researchers determined that stair climbing was twice as difficult as walking briskly and 50 percent more difficult than walking up a steep hill or lifting weights. In addition, subjects peak exertion was attained at a faster rate in stair climbing compared to walking or lifting weights allowing subjects to complete their workout faster attaining the same results. A person can typically burn approximately 300-600 calories in about 30 minutes depending on body weight.

“Stair climbing requires 8-9 times more energy expenditure than sitting. Climbing stairs for just two minutes a day is enough to burn one pound of excess body fat in an adult over the course of a year. Using the stairs instead of an elevator burns 700% more calories. A lower risk of stroke and all diseases is improved by 20% in men who climb about three floors a day. Stair climbing can actually raise good cholesterol. Walking down the stairs reduces high blood sugar levels, which can help impede the onset of type 2 diabetes. Bone mineral density has been seen to increase in a post-menopausal woman’s hip region after an extended regime of climbing stairs. Stair climbing requires about 8-12 calories of energy per minute depending on body weight which is high compared to other moderate level physical activities. Active stair climbers are more fit and have a higher aerobic capacity. Even two flights of stairs climbed per day can lead to 6 pounds of weight loss over one year”, according to the Duke University website.

A study from the Queen’s University of Belfast and University of Wolverhampton published in 2000 in Preventive Medicine looked at the effects of stair climbing on various health outcomes. Following a seven-week stair-climbing program (that averaged 13.5 minutes per day) researchers found the active group of subjects, compared to the control group, experienced reduced heart rate, improved oxygen uptake and an increase in their high-density lipoprotein, or “good” cholesterol.

A study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that short bouts of stair-climbing five days a week for eight weeks improved subjects VO2 max by 17 percent in young women.

It’s about time that you get out and book some “flight-time”!

Additional Reading on the Subject (or Listening)

One Step To Combat Obesity: Make Stairs More Attractive by Flora Lichtman (NPR)


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