Health Benefits of Stair Climbing

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Matt Hudson, Total Motion Events, October 2017

Who even knew that the use of steps in fitness could be a thing prior Gin Miller’s doctor telling her to use an upturned milk crate to provide a low impact knee strengthening exercise. Reebok took this to the next level, recruiting Miller as an ambassador and introducing the ‘Step’ to the aerobics studio in the late 80s. Prior to all of this the use of stairs was limited to step-ups in the few weeks prior to a school ski trip….wow, shockingly I remember this too well!!

Stepper leg toners came next, via QVC, before larger scale stair equipment became part of the mainstream gym setup with Versaclimbers rising in popularity. Step machines and The Jacob’s Ladder followed. These are found in most gyms today, but are only used by a few hardcore stair converts, or people waiting to use the treadmill.

Whilst exercising on stairs was slow in catching on in the UK the US was already embracing the use of actual stairs in actual buildings rather than the synthesised experiences here, with the world’s first annual stair climb event already established at The Empire Building in the 70’s. Now, encouraged by an enthusiastic international community of towerrunners, the UK stair climbing scene has started to boom. Shelter’s ‘Vertical Rush’ and The NSPCC “Gherkin Challenge’ for many years were the only major opportunities to climb London’s tallest buildings, however in recent years the barriers that stood between charities and stair climb events have started to be stripped away, leaving more opportunities for the public to experience these great mass participation challenges. Actual stair climb events in actual stairwells!

One of the major reasons there is such a love of stair training and competition across the globe is the huge range of health benefits associated with the activity. There has been extensive research undertaken demonstrating the effectiveness of time spent on stairs in improving our physical and mental health.

StepJockey, which was seed funded by the UK Department of Health, have conducted some of the most extensive research into the benefits of stair climbing in the UK. This research has concluded that stair climbing in fact burns more calories per minute than jogging, helping to control weight with just a few minutes per day helping to stave off middle age spread. Harvard Medical School studies have shown that people who walk up stairs, even at a slower pace, burn calories three times faster than when walking at a faster speed on a normal surface. Milan University researchers go futher and have shown that up to 80% of energy in exercise is directed towards transporting mass upwards, meaning that calories could be burnt on the stairs at up to 10 times the rate than on level ground.

Studies from the Dubai Excellency Centre demonstrate that not only are we seeing calorie burn, but also the exercise serves to build muscle tone as one might expect, but in addition improves bone density and protects against related conditions such as osteoporosis, benefits that can also be achieved, albeit to a lesser degree, whilst descending stairs. Canada’s Concordia University tell us the very mechanics of stair activity requires your brain to be more alert in order to keep your body balanced and coordinated. This, in turn, improves your motor skills and sharpens your cognitive abilities, as well as making you more observant and receptive to visual information.

Doctors in the US additionally recommend stair climbing as an ideal way to improve your energy levels, increase the function of your immune system and lower your risk of diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease. Georgia University research suggests that 10 minutes of stair-climbing in the middle of the day boosts energy levels more effectively than a 50mg dose of caffeine. A mid morning stair climb rather than an Americano? Coffee lovers may take some convincing there!

These benefits may seem like the more obvious advantages, but less obvious are the mental health benefits as suggested by Concordia who also studied the brain volumes of people who climbed more stairs daily and found them to have more grey matter, helping to keep the brain ‘younger’.  The National Center for Biotechnology Information in the US agree that vigorous exercise of this nature produces improved brain function. Aside from this it is well understood that the associated release of endorphins, above and beyond less vigorous sports, gives that feel good factor, relieving tension, and perhaps is responsible for the mild addition stair climbers experience on the completion of climbs and events.

So, if you’re looking for a new way to improve your all-round health, then you needn’t look any further than the stairs. If you live in the capital you are blessed with access to stairwells – think about all those stairs on the tubes, escalators and static staircases. Take the stairs at work too, it’ll likely be quicker than waiting for the lift, all the time making small improvements to your health without making any major sacrifices. 

There is further good news for those in the UK looking for their opportunity to hit the stairs at an organised event, whilst taking advantage of these enhanced health benefits. In 2018 there will be more stair climbs then ever, supporting a variety of great causes. Give it a whirl; you never know it may prove to be a great addition to your sporting calendar. It will certainly benefit your health, and dare I say you may actually enjoy the challenge!

See you on the stairs in 2018.