Choosing the stairs over the elevator has been considered sage fitness advice for years, but a new study published proves backs up this health tip in the journal Atherosclerosis looked at exactly how many flights of stairs you need to climb daily to better your heart health. The short answer? Climbing just five flights per day could reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease by 20%.
“Researchers discovered a 19% relative risk reduction of heart disease in participants who regularly climbed five flights of stairs per day,” says Dr. Yvonne Covin, an internal medicine doctor. “Unfortunately, those who had initially climbed stairs but later stopped experienced a 32% higher risk of heart disease compared to those who did not exercise at all.”
Like all research, this study has its limitations, according to Dr. Robert Harrington a cardiologist and the dean of Weill Cornell Medicine. “The study was done using data from the U.K. Biobank, a large observational/epidemiological study that has been used extensively for research purposes,” he says. Because the study was observational, it could not establish causation (as in, “Climbing more stairs equals fewer cardiac events.”); instead, the study is just pointing out associations between this activity and heart health.
Why stair walking is so good for you
Heart disease accounts for one in five deaths in the United States each year, killing about 695,000 people annually. Stair climbing falls under the category of aerobic exercise, or movement that increases your heart rate and oxygen levels using repetitive activity. Generally speaking, aerobic exercise reduces your risk of high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and, yes, heart disease.
“Walking stairs is similar to many activities such as walking, running, and bike riding that are associated with improvement in cardiovascular risk, such as a reduction in heart attacks,” Harrington says. “Stair walking may be a bit more exertion than simply walking, and it also requires some balance and core strength that might combat an issue like frailty and muscle weakness.”
Ascending a few dozen feet before you sit at your desk all day may also improve longevity. “As we age, stair climbing can improve leg power and back strength, both of which can help prevent falls,” says Covin. Specifically, post-menopausal individuals who climb stairs have been found to have higher bone density.
Climbing stairs for better heart health
To start improving your heart health today, Harrington recommends incorporating some variety of aerobic activity—which may include stair climbing—into your exercise regimen. “In line with American Heart Association recommendations, I ask patients to aim for 150 minutes per week of moderate exercise (30 minutes 5 days a week). Mostly, this means walking at a moderate pace and light weight lifting to maintain strength three times weekly,” he says. Climbing the stairs is considered “moderate exercise” because it burns about eight to 11 calories per minute.
That said, exercising isn’t the be-all, end-all of improving your health. Covin recommends keeping the six pillars of lifestyle medicine in mind when choosing how to support your mind and body. “Lifestyle Medicine is a medical subspecialty focused on evidence-based methods to support heart health,” she explains.
These six pillars include plenty of classic advice that you’ve likely heard before: Eat whole, plant-based foods when possible, prioritize restorative sleep, squeeze in those 150 minutes of movement per week, avoid risky substances such as tobacco and alcohol, and make time for social connections. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that about 80% of instances of heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes could be prevented by prioritizing these six behaviors.
3 stair workouts to try
While a simple walk up the stairs offers so many benefits, you can also try upping the ante with stair workouts at a stairwell near you, or on the stair climber at your local gym.
1. Stair interval training
Alternate climbing one flight of stairs at a controlled pace and one at a slightly quicker (but still safe and controlled) pace. Repeat three to five times, depending on how comfortable you are ascending flights of stairs. Take a break and repeat the workout once or twice more.
2. Stair climbing and calisthenics
Design a circuit workout for yourself that includes climbing a few flights of stairs at a moderate pace and then dropping onto the floor for strength training, such as push-ups or crunches. For example, you migh climb three sets of stairs, do 10 squats, and rest for one minute before repeating the whole circuit.
3. Stair climbing by time
For a straightforward workout, simply set your watch or phone timer for 10 minutes and walk with a slow, sustained effort up the stairs or stairclimber. Take a five-minute break at the end of 10 minutes before returning for another 10-minute effort.