How the UAE's 30-day stair-climbing challenge can transform your fitness

Stair climbing is easy to build into your daily life, and it has many health benefits

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Here in the UAE, everything goes upward; the terrain may be naturally flat, but the skyward-facing country is constantly striving to build on its height. As we all ascend towards our apartments and places of work, we rely on elevators to get us there. Of course, for those residing and working at nosebleed altitudes, life without a lift would be nigh-on ­impossible, but what is this lack of movement doing to our health?

According to latest figures, about 37 per cent of the adult population in the UAE is obese. Among children, up to 14 per cent of boys are classed as obese, and up to 18 per cent of girls. These numbers, from the World Health Organisation, have sparked one hospital into action. Its weapon of choice? The stairs.

For 30 days, healthcare professionals at Bareen International Hospital in Abu Dhabi are encouraging people to forgo the lift and take the stairs instead, even if just for a few flights at a time.

Join the challenge

The Take The Stairs challenge launched last week, and people across the UAE are sharing their stories on social media as part of the wider #TakeTheStairs hashtag.

"In the world that we live in, many of us lead sedentary lifestyles, where we spend a lot of time in our cars and at our desks. Statistics show 10 per cent of people in the world are obese, and the UAE doubles that world average. People are putting themselves at higher risk of heath complications such as type 2 diabetes and heart diseases," says Dr El Zaqui Ladha, a consultant in bariatric and general surgery at Bareen. "We are excited to launch our #Take­TheStairs challenge, and encourage people to make small changes to be more active in the long-term."

With so many high-rise buildings in the UAE, it is often easier to take the lifts. But where possible, we are encouraging people to take the stairs.

Anyone can take part in the challenge by pledging to climb stairs every day for 30 days straight, joining in with the hashtag on social media and tagging the hospital, or just going it on their own. "With so many high-rise buildings in the UAE, it is often easier to take the lifts. But where possible, we are encouraging people to take the stairs," adds Ladha. "Even a small amount of exercise that helps raise the heart rate will make a difference to your ­fitness levels. Whether you are six or 60, we hope that people will join and pledge to take the stairs."

The benefits of stair climbing

This particular activity comes with a host of benefits, and walking up stairs qualifies as moderate to vigorous exercise. The motion of climbing stairs pits our weight against gravity, and requires us to use extra energy to push ourselves forward, while also working all the core muscles in our lower bodies. Bone density can be aided by this movement, helping to protect against related conditions, such as osteoporosis. You can also try to take two steps at a time and ­simultaneously use the railings to pull yourself up, so you also get an upper-body workout in.

Aside from the physical benefits, your mental health and energy levels receive a boost. Short stair climbs throughout the day can aid concentration, memory and cognitive flexibility. Researchers at Concordia University studied the brain volumes of people who climbed stairs daily and found them to have more grey matter, which keeps the brain younger.

Although 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 co-­ordinated. This, in turn, improves your motor skills and sharpens your cognitive abilities, as well as making you more observant and receptive to visual information.

Long working hours, a busy social life or looking after your kids often leave little time to exercise. However, stair-climbingis an activity most of us have easy access to; it's a small change that has a big impact on health. The key, as I've personally discovered, is to normalise the activity.

Tried and tested

On January 2, when I returned to work following an overindulgent festive period, I stood in frustration among the growing crowd waiting for the lift, which would inevitably stop at every level before it took me up to my seventh-floor desk to settle in for the day. I made a snap New Year's resolution that morning: in 2019, I would only take the stairs at the office.

I can’t make that same promise for my apartment building, where I live on the 13th floor. While I do tackle the climb occasionally, at the end of a long day when I am, in all likelihood, rushing home to make myself dinner, the 13 floors between me and the kitchen is too much of a burden, but the seven floors between me and my desk – that, I decided, I could commit to.

We are now a third of the way through the year, and I think this is the most success I’ve had in sticking to a resolution. I’ve taken the lift once in the office since I set myself the goal, but I was carrying a suitcase and some particularly heavy bags that day, so I’m going to let myself off that one, but aside from that, I’ve taken the stairs every time and can attest that it’s easy enough to fit into your day. Most experts maintain that injury-free adults should climb stairs for 10 minutes daily, preceded by a five-minute warm-up that could include walking on flat ground, followed by basic stretches.

It takes me about three minutes to tackle the 160 steps up, and while it can get a little tedious at times, I’m always glad I did it. Some days, I can take the stairs three or four times, if I pop downstairs for a coffee or to the shop, and I have noticed a huge improvement in my fitness levels.

For the first few weeks, I had to pause at the top before going into the office, to catch my breath and give my burning legs a minute to cool down before the imminent onslaught of morning greetings. Now I can stroll out of the stairwell and launch straight into conversation, quite often beating that crowded lift.