Nine months ago, when my husband and I were moving into the three-story condominium we’re currently renting, I was more than a wee bit concerned with how I’d navigate all those levels. My office would on the top floor, with our bedroom, main bathroom, and laundry beneath me. Two flights of stairs stood between my desk and the kitchen sink, and the ground floor led down another flight of stairs to the basement, where I planned to practice yoga and play my musical instruments. Just thinking about running up and down all those stairs every day made me a little light-headed.
Previously, we’d lived in places where home was spread out over just one level of living quarters. This had been especially helpful to me when I suffered more severely and frequently from dystonia attacks, which caused me to fall frequently when I attempted walking. When I was first diagnosed with the neurological movement disorder, I lived at my parents’ two-story home and had to scoot myself up and down the stairs on my backside when my legs were feeling especially wonky. While those days felt long behind now, one never knew when a dystonic seizure would strike next.
Yet, I was cautiously optimistic. I was more stable on my feet these days, and I had been hiking our hilly property regularly at our previous home. I was pretty sure that running up and down three flights of stairs at our new place, when I was feeling physically sound, would be a pretty decent addition to my daily workouts. I had a few, fitness-related scientific studies to back up my assumption, the latest of which had its results published in the journal Applied Physiology, Nutrition and Metabolism earlier this month.
A new study by kinesiologists at McMaster University and UBC Okanagan in Canada suggests that even brief bouts of brisk stair-climbing throughout the day can improve heart health in young adults who are otherwise physically inactive. Researchers asked a group of sedentary college students to sprint climb a three-flight (60-step) staircase three times a day, three days out of the week for six weeks. These bouts were preceded by warm-ups, which included 10 jumping jacks, 10 air squats and five lunges per leg, and were followed by a minute of level walking. Participants experienced a considerable boost in peak oxygen uptake, a sign of increased cardiorespiratory fitness (CRF), as compared to a control group that did not exercise at all. Those who engaged in these stair sprints also generated more peak power during a maximal cycling test, performed on a fixed cycling machine, or cycle ergometer.
Low CRF is associated with an increased risk of all-cause mortality and cardiovascular disease. Habitual physical activity is associated with increased CRF, but many folks fail to meet recommended fitness guidelines, citing “lack of time” as a reason why they do not regularly exercise. This study suggests that stair climbing ‘snacks’ might be a more accessible alternative to longer, single-session exercise routines, while still offering modest CRF improvements.
“We know that sprint interval training works, but we were a bit surprised to see that the stair snacking approach was also effective,” said Jonathan Little, assistant professor at UBC’s Okanagan campus and study co-author, according to a ScienceDaily press release. “Vigorously climbing a few flights of stairs on your coffee or bathroom break during the day seems to be enough to boost fitness in people who are otherwise sedentary.”
Previous studies had shown the health benefits of stair climbing over longer periods of time. A 2017 study by McMaster University examined the cardiovascular benefits of a single session of multiple stair climbing bursts with just a few minutes of recovery in between, rather than three separate sessions separated by one to four hour periods of rest. Just 30 minutes per week of sprint interval training (SIT) exercise–or “brief bursts of vigorous exercise separated by short periods of recovery”–had a positive impact on CRF, reflected by an increase in peak oxygen uptake of 12 percent . First, the 31 sedentary, but otherwise healthy, female participants were asked to continually ascend stairs in an “all out” fashion for 20-second bouts three times. Then, participants were asked to sprint climb up and down a flight or two of stairs for 60 seconds. Both protocols increased CRG by an even greater percentage then the bite-sized ‘exercise snacks’ featured in the 2019 study, according to researchers. They speculate that “the longer recovery periods may reduce the overall metabolic stress as compared to traditional sprint interval training protocols and potentially attenuate the adaptive response in CRF.”
“This research takes interval training out of the lab and makes it accessible to everyone,” Martin Gibala, a professor of kinesiology at McMaster and lead author on the study, said in a press release. “Stair climbing is a form of exercise anyone can do in their own home, after work or during the lunch hour.”
Gibala has studied high-intensity interval training for more than a decade and wrote on its efficacy in The One Minute Workout. “Interval training offers a convenient way to fit exercise into your life, rather than having to structure your life around exercise,” he said.
Another study of the health benefits of stair climbing published in 2018 followed Korean post-menopausal women with stage 2 hypertension, which is defined by chronically high blood pressure with systolic pressure greater than 139 mm Hg or diastolic pressure greater than 89 mm Hg. Participants trained four days per week, climbing 192 steps (roughly the equivalent of nine-and-a-half flights of stairs) two to five times daily. They experienced increased leg strength, lower blood pressure, and a reduction in arterial stiffness. Hardening or narrowing of arteries (arteriosclerosis or atheriosclerosis, respectively) is caused by a buildup of plaque in the arteries, which leads to high blood pressure and, left untreated, can result in weakness and ruptures in blood vessels, as well as a shortage of blood flow and oxygen to various tissues and organs of the body, culminating in heart attack, stroke or heart failure.
McMaster researchers plan to examine the effect on other-health related indices, such as blood pressure and glycemic control, in future studies. According to Healio, researcher Bronwyn Kingwell, PhD, in her work at Baker IDI and Diabetes Institute in Melbourne, Australia, has already demonstrated that brief bouts of exercises, like squats and knee or calf raises, performed every 30 minutes can be very effective for both blood pressure and glycemic control. Other studies have shown that extended periods of sitting are associated with constricted blood vessels and diminished blood flow to the legs, as well as metabolic dysfunction, regardless of one’s weight or overall time spent exercising. Taken all together, these studies make a strong case for performing bite-sized ‘exercise snacks’ frequently throughout the day.
In addition to daily yoga, I think my marathon climbing of stairs throughout the day nicely complements my efforts to get in a walk outdoors each day. It’s true that in the first week or two after moving into our multi-level condo, I felt the burn in my hamstrings and glutes scurrying up and down to unpack and organize our living space. At first, it was physically taxing to descend to the kitchen to wash dishes, run up two flights of stairs to work at my desk, head down three stairways to the basement to do yoga, and then ascend two levels to shower and dress before heading back up to my office. Laundry days were even worse. But before long, I became accustomed to the extra exercise–and my legs grew considerably stronger. I felt a little thrill of accomplishment watching my number of steps increase on the iPhone ‘Health’ app, seeing just how many flights of stairs it calculated I had climbed. Now, I look forward to the continual sprint up and down the stairs throughout each day, and it’s hard to imagine a better layout for where we live.
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