Elevator or stairs? Your choice could increase longevity, study finds

Climbing stairs is a great way to get in quick bursts of aerobic exercise, says cardiologist Dr. Carl Long.

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Climbing stairs is a great way to get in quick bursts of aerobic exercise, says cardiologist Dr. Carl Long.

Lingqi xie/Getty Images

At a time when less than half of US adults get the recommended amount of exercise, there is new evidence that taking stairs can reduce the risk of heart disease and help people live longer.

A new meta-analysis presented at a conference of the European Society of Cardiology finds that people with a stair-climbing habit were about 39% less likely to die from heart disease, compared with non-stair-climbers. They also had a lower risk of heart attacks and strokes.

“I was surprised that such a simple form of exercise could reduce all-cause mortality,” says study author Dr Sophie Paddock, from the University of East Anglia and Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital Foundation Trust in the United Kingdom.

She and her colleagues analyzed data from about 480,000 participants, aged between their mid-30s and mid-80s, half of whom were women. Paddock says the findings fit with a body of evidence pointing to the benefits of moderate-intensity exercise.

The moment you start climbing stairs, your body responds. “Your heart rate increases, your cardiac output increases, and your circulatory status improves,” explains Dr. Manish Parikh, chief of cardiology at Brooklyn Methodist Hospital NewYork-Presbyterian. “And everyone we know has positive impacts,” he says.

So how much stair climbing is enough? One study found that taking six to 10 flights a day was linked to a reduced risk of premature death. And another study found that climbing more than five flights a day reduced the risk of cardiovascular disease by 20%.

To calculate this, the researchers looked at participants’ risk of heart disease based on factors such as blood pressure, cholesterol, smoking history, family history and genetic risk factors. Participants filled out questionnaires about their lifestyle and exercise habits, such as climbing stairs. Over the course of 12 years, the climbers fared better at fending off heart disease. Of note, people who stopped climbing stairs during this time saw their risk increase. It’s a reminder that to benefit from exercise, you have to keep doing it.

The benefits can appear quite quickly. A review published earlier this year found that it takes a minimum of four to eight weeks to start improving your cardiometabolic risk. The study found that climbing stairs regularly can improve body composition, blood pressure, insulin sensitivity and blood pressure.

If you’re trying to incorporate more movement into your day, adding stair climbing is a good way to get in quick bursts of aerobic exercise, says Dr. Carlin Long, a cardiologist at the University of California, San Francisco. “I think if people are able to get six to 10 steps of exercise on the stairs a day, that would be a good goal,” but that will depend on your personal fitness level, Long says.

“Exercise is one of the best approaches to cardiovascular fitness,” Long says, and taking the stairs can be convenient. “It doesn’t require a gym membership,” he says, and many people can climb stairs at home or at work. Long says more sustained exercise, such as a longer bike ride, a walk or run, or a session on the treadmill, is also worth it to meet the recommended 30 minutes of exercise a day.

Climbing stairs can also help build muscle. “Stair climbing can be a wonderful combination of aerobic exercise and resistance training,” says Dr. Tamara Horwich, a UCLA cardiologist who focuses on women’s heart health.

You raise your heart rate and work your muscles at the same time. “You’re increasing your leg muscles by having to pull your weight up the next step,” he says. And that’s a key benefit given that only 24% of adults in the US meet recommended goals for both aerobic exercise and muscle strengthening.

If you are not used to climbing stairs, you may need to start slowly.

If you track steps on your FitBit or Apple, these devices can also be used to track climbing. “So instead of just looking at the steps, [you] you can also look at the number of stairs climbed and try to increase that,” he says. It’s a good way to gauge progress.

This story was edited by Jane Greenhalgh

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