Step right up for free, convenient exercise
Special to The Washington Post February 6, 2023
Every winter for 30 years, I followed an unorthodox, low-tech approach to keeping fit. From November through February, I climbed the steps in our 22-story apartment building in New York. And I mean climbed.
Up and down I would go, up and down for three or four or five or even six round trips in all. Each outing lasted at least 30 minutes. Always, I walked rather than ran, listening to music, the funkier the better, until I was sweaty and panting. It kept me fit and happy.
Climbing stairs in an apartment or office building rarely comes to mind as an exercise routine. But it should. Numerous studies show that stair-climbing, even in short but intense bouts, strengthens muscles, boosts energy and improves overall cardiorespiratory fitness. Climbing stairs daily might even lower the risk of metabolic syndrome, a combination of diabetes, high blood pressure and obesity.
“Home-based climbing was at least as effective as an equivalent gym-based protocol,” researchers at Britain’s University of Birmingham concluded after observing 52 sedentary women ages 18 to 45 — one group climbing stairs at home, the other doing the same in a gym — for five days a week, progressing from two ascents a day to five, over eight weeks. “Walking up and down stairs at home reduces health risk at low cost for the individual.”
Why stairs are a good workout
Another study, in the Journal of Aging and Physical Activity, called stair-climbing an “accessible and time-efficient mode of exercise,” particularly as a “promising intervention strategy” for improving cognitive performance in older adults.
As it happens, about 39 million Americans live in apartment buildings, many of them high-rises with plenty of steps to climb, according to the National Apartment Association. Office buildings and shopping malls also offer stair-stepping possibilities. And racing up stairs in a skyscraper — known as tower running — is gaining recognition as an organized competitive sport.
Alvin Morton, assistant professor in the exercise and rehabilitation science at Merrimack College in North Andover, Mass., walks up and down the steps in his apartment building for 20 minutes at a clip, wearing a weighted vest to intensify his exertions.
“It qualifies as moderate activity at a minimum,” says Morton, a member of the American College of Sports Medicine’s Fitness Index Advisory Board. “And you have the stairs right there in your apartment building. Besides, who has time to travel to a gym and shower and leave the kids for long?”
Every time you step up, you are working numerous leg muscles. In the process, you’re also elevating the weight of your entire body, against the pull of gravity, by as much as 10 inches. Your muscles have to generate enough power to do so, and all the more if you’re moving at a vigorous pace. It’s known in scientific terms as vertical displacement and is considered a version of resistance training.
Stair-climbing in an everyday or naturalistic environment as exercise may be growing in popularity, says Melissa Wehnert Roti, professor and director of the Exercise Science Program at Westfield State University in Westfield, Mass. “With the pandemic, more people who were quarantining came to see how they could work out in a home environment,” she says.
My winter stair-climbing drills proved deeply rewarding. I could work out in absolute privacy, without braving the cold outside, much less shelling out an annual gym membership fee.
Year after year, decade after decade, my commitment to our stairs delivered results. It improved my speed, strength and stamina — and especially my footwork — for playing basketball and tennis in the warmer months. Why bother with a StairMaster? (Full disclosure: Last year my stair-climbing adventures ended when I moved to a one-story house in a warmer climate.)
How to start a stair-climbing regimen
If you do decide to turn your stairs into a home gym, take it easy at first, experts recommend.
Start with only a few floors on each outing, taking a single step at a time at a slow tempo. Stand straight, shoulders back, chin tucked in, because it’s easy to slump if you’re getting tired. Build in breaks. If you’re big on metrics, apps such as StepJockey, Stairforce and StairClimbs can track the number of floors you climb in a given stint.
If you go long — say, more than 15 minutes — take it slow. But if you opt to go fast, keep it brief. Swing your arms. Once you get the hang of it, you can up the degree of difficulty and go faster and longer. You might even strap on a backpack or wrist weights.
“Stair-climbing is an excellent exercise for anyone, at any age, already exercising with good balance,” Roti says. “There are no specific recommendations in terms of how many flights of stairs to climb.”
As for the risk of falling on stairs, it’s “no higher than walking on level ground in persons without balance issues,” Morton says. “But a person struggling with balance — due to a medical condition or medications, for example — should do activities that allow for sitting, such as seated bicycling.”
To stay safe, however, make sure the stairs you walk are well lit, and wear shoes that get reliable traction. Bear in mind that the faster you step, especially while descending, the more likely you are to trip. Hold a railing to keep your balance if you feel yourself getting wobbly. Finally, consider walking with a partner or group.
If you decide to go it alone, there is one last issue to consider:
For decades, I worried that an unsuspecting neighbor might be alarmed at the sight of a stranger in the stairwell sweating, panting and boogying with lunatic abandon. So before you hit the stairs, be ready to explain your presence.
“You’re perfectly safe,” I would assure fellow travelers who happened upon me. “Just doing a little exercise here.”