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How many flights does it take for stair-climbing to qualify as a workout?

The ability to go up and down stairs quickly and with confidence is a task worthy of preserving.
The ability to go up and down stairs quickly and with confidence is a task worthy of preserving.

When it comes to stair climbing, there’s no denying that the 1,776 steps in the CN Tower present a mighty tall challenge. Thankfully, most workplaces don’t expect their employees to hike 144 flights every morning, even if taking the stairs is encouraged.

So how many flights does it takes for stair climbing to qualify as a workout? Most workplace health programs highlight the benefits of the long game, urging employees to opt for the stairs on a regular basis, even if it’s just one flight. If the goal is improved health and longevity, the Harvard Alumni Health study reported that climbing 10-19 flights a week (two to four flights per day) reduces mortality risk. And a host of other studies have proved that consistently choosing to take the stairs can improve cardiovascular fitness, balance, gait, blood pressure, glucose, cholesterol and weight loss.

From a strictly physiological standpoint, there’s a lot going on when using the stairs — especially compared with the effort associated with taking the elevator or escalator. Most of the muscles in the lower body are called into action both going up and down the stairs. As for the heart, it’s working hard enough on the ascent to qualify as a vigorous intensity workout, while going downstairs is considered a moderate intensity activity.

But that’s not news to anyone who’s climbed more than a couple of flights at a time. Heavy legs and breathlessness set in early. And if that’s not proof enough of its workout potential, that so many people avoid the stairs in favour of a less strenuous option — like pushing the button for the elevator — is a clear indication of the effort it requires. Yet for those who make a conscious decision to travel from floor to floor on their own steam, the payoff is worth it.

What’s the goal for anyone hoping to realize the health and fitness benefits of taking the stairs? An overview of the research suggests that 30-160 minutes of vigorous stair climbing a week for eight to 12 weeks will boost cardiovascular fitness. But in keeping with the trend toward shorter, more intense workouts, a research team from McMaster University recruited 24 university students to perform a series of short, fast stair intervals. The students climbed three flights of stairs (60 steps) three times a day with one to four hours recovery between bouts — a protocol they followed three days a week for six weeks. With instructions to climb the stairs one step at a time as quickly as possible, using the railings as needed, the stair climbers realized a five-per-cent boost in aerobic fitness.

Another stair-climbing study , also performed by a McMaster University research team, involved two sets of subjects. One group performed 20-second bouts of stair climbing (about three to four storeys) three times, with two minutes recovery between each interval. The second group performed 60-second bouts of repeatedly ascending and descending either one or two flights of stairs, three times with 60 seconds recovery between intervals. The two groups performed their workouts three days a week for six weeks.

The 20-second and 60-second interval workouts resulted in similar heart rate response and fitness gains, though the study subjects preferred the repeated bouts of 20 seconds of stair climbing over the 60-second intervals of continually climbing up and down one or two flights. They claimed to find the quick changes in direction destabilizing.

The McMaster studies add to the fitness options for people looking for another simple, accessible, time efficient workout to help achieve their weekly fitness goals. But to be clear, we’re not talking about the type of stair climbing you do while dressed in business casual. These 10-minute workouts demand a level of intensity that brings on a sweat.

But it’s not just the potential to improve health and fitness that makes stair climbing such a great workout option. Climbing the stairs is a functional day-to-day task that requires balance and agility, both of which deteriorate as the decades add up. The ability to go up and down stairs quickly and with confidence is a task worthy of preserving.

Use a set of stairs at home or at the office that will sustain a climb for a minimum of 20 seconds (about 60 steps) or a single/double flight of stairs that can accommodate quick changes in direction. Then use the stairs on those days when time isn’t on your side. A quick warmup, followed by three x 20 seconds or three x 60 seconds of stair climbing with a short recovery (one to two minutes) between bouts is a great stand-in for more traditional workouts. And when you think you’ve mastered the stairs at work or at home, there’s always the CN Tower.

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019

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