A look at the many benefits of stair-climbing

From boosting fitness to keeping the brain alert, stair-climbing has powerful and positive benefits, according to multiple research studies published this year

Woman running up steps in urban setting
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One day, four colleagues decided that they would climb four flights of stairs, at least twice a day, in an effort to get fit. Only one (not me) had anything resembling a proper workout routine – a personal trainer twice a week and a trip ascending Mount Kilimanjaro the year before (definitely not me). The rest of our motley crew might substitute bad carbs with rice cakes, or go for a walk or swim after work every now and again, but that first day after taking on the stairs, each of us has had the same thing to report: we were all in lower-body hell. By hell, I mean that bittersweet pain after a particularly rigorous or long-overdue workout.

It’s perhaps indicative of just how sedentary most of our lives are that climbing up and down a mere eight floors – which didn’t take us more than five minutes in total – led to aching calves, ramrod thighs and quaking quads. Surely stair-climbing ought to be a movement that registers as regular, even to our desk-bound legs? Turns out not.

“When you climb the stairs, you’re pitting your weight against gravity. The usual angle is 30 to 35 degrees, which is similar to going up a steep hill. This requires more effort and therefore has more benefits,” Dr Vasileios Mitsis, a specialist of physical medicine and rehabilitation at the Dubai-based Excellency Center, says.

In fact, walking up stairs qualifies as “moderate to vigorous exercise”, which means it is prudent to warm-up before you start, to prepare the body and reduce the chances of injury, says Mitsis. Neglecting to warm up could be one of the reasons why four reasonably healthy women hobbled in to work on day two. Our bodies are used to moving forwards, not upwards.

Luckily, you can build muscle memory by going vertical whenever possible. Even a few flights a day can help condition your muscles. “It should be noted, however, that the benefits of exercise are lost within a few weeks if you stop. The only way to build and maintain muscle strength and endurance, in the long run, is to keep doing it,” says Mitsis.

Propelling yourself upward using your body weight not only builds leg strength and muscle tone, but also improves bone density and protects against related conditions such as osteoporosis.

Myriad research studies have highlighted the benefits of incorporating stair-climbing into our lives. An ongoing study at Georgia University is comparing two wake-up methods: drinking coffee and climbing the stairs, and initial 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.

Another study published this year, by McMaster University, found that short, intense bursts of stair-climbing – 10 minutes, including a warm-up and cool-down – have major benefits for heart health, while Australia’s Edith Cowan University found that the exercise could help protect people against diabetes.

Most experts maintain that injury-free adults who are inactive for most of the day should aim to climb stairs for 10 minutes daily, preceded by a five-minute warm-up that could include walking on flat ground, followed by basic stretches, such as squats and lunges. Once you are comfortable doing 70 minutes a week, add flights until you’ve reached 30 minutes, broken up across the day. You can also try to take the steps two at a time and simultaneously use the railings to pull yourself up, so you also get an upper-body workout in.

The key is to normalise the activity, according to Peter Pastijn, a spinning instructor and co-founder of The Room in Abu Dhabi, who is on the panel of experts for Gulf For Good. The Dubai-based charity regularly organises stair-climbing and tower-running events and races in Dubai’s high-rises, as does Zayed Sports City in Abu Dhabi.

“Adding stair climbs into your daily routine is essential. Avoid lifts wherever possible. If you work in a tall building, make the most of it before, during and after work. Also, find a friend who lives in your apartment block and ask them to join you in using the stairs. For villa dwellers, walk up and down your stairs 10 or 20 times,” says Pastijn.

In addition to the physical, there are also numerous reported mental-health benefits to stair-climbing. This year, researchers at Concordia University studied the brain volumes of people who climbed more stairs daily and found them to have more grey matter, which keeps the brain younger. And while walking down stairs may burn fewer calories than climbing up, it 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.

“I have trained myself to mentally sort through my to-do list on the stairs. That way I return to my desk with less stress and more clarity,” says Dubai-based advertising executive and avid stair-climber Priya Merchant. While she prefers to go it herself, stair-climbing can be rendered more effective and enjoyable as a group activity. StepJockey, which has a free app that lets you track your stair climbs and record how many calories you’ve burnt, has also found that by turning stair-climbing into a game, people are more motivated to ditch the lift.

Ease of access also gives the activity an edge over other exercise regimes. Stairs are everywhere, they are free to use and don't require high fitness levels. Also, unless you're charging up and down flights of stairs at high speeds for prolonged periods, you won't need a change of clothes, and you can wear most kinds of flat shoes or keep a pair of trainers at the office. As kinesiology professor Patrick O'Connor from UGA puts it: "You may not have time to go for a swim, but you will have 10 minutes to walk up and down the stairs. No sunblock required."