Stair climbing a challenging cardio workout, builds muscle strength

Whether scaling flights at work or pounding a machine at the gym, stair climbing remains a popular path to fitness.
Published August 4 2016
Updated August 4 2016

If you want to get a big bang for your exercise buck, take the stairs. Whether you do it on a stepping machine at the gym, in a stairwell where you work or at a sports arena with sky-high stadium seating, stair climbing provides a great workout that challenges even the most physically fit athletes.

Make no mistake. Stair climbing is hard work. It has endured over the years for lots of reasons, chief among them: cost — it can be free, depending on where you do it; it builds strength in most major muscle groups while providing a good cardio workout; and it burns a lot of calories in a relatively short time.

Patty Grissom of Largo has always been into fitness, but now she has to go to the gym only once or twice a week because she turns every workday into a workout.

"I never take an elevator or escalator when there's a staircase option," said Grissom, 58, who works as a concierge at the main entrance to Morton Plant Hospital in Clearwater, located in a seven-story building. People come to the check-in desk in droves every day. Most need to be escorted to different departments, around construction obstacles, through hallways, upstairs, downstairs. Grissom takes the elevator when someone requires it, but bypasses elevators on the return journey for two reasons: to get the exercise and "so I know I'm freeing up elevators for people who truly need them."

According to her Fitbit tracker, a braceletlike device that records daily physical activity, Grissom walks 6 to 8 miles every day at work and takes 15 to 20 flights of stairs. She admits she still needs to work on her diet, but she is committed to getting a daily dose of physical activity.

Remember the stair-climbing machines of the 1980s and '90s? They were big, clunky and noisy, yes, but effective at elevating the heart rate and strengthening and toning the abdomen, legs, thighs and glutes. The machines eventually faded in popularity, but stair climbing never really went away. Instead the machines got smaller, sleeker and quieter, and it became easier to adjust speed and intensity. They also added high-tech features like fitness feedback, plug-ins for tablets and personal music players, TV screens and a place to prop up a magazine, put your water bottle and stash a few personal items.

"The StairMaster StepMill is the most popular piece of equipment on our cardio floor," said A'Naja Newsome, assistant director of the University of South Florida's Campus Recreation Center and an exercise physiologist. Newsome said women usually are more interested in cardio workouts than men, but that stair climbers attract men and women.

"We have four of these machines, and they are almost always occupied during our busiest hours," she said.

Why the continued popularity? "It's probably because of our busy lifestyles," said BayCare Health System exercise physiologist Jeanmarie Scordino, who is also a manager involved in employee wellness and fitness. "Everyone's looking for quick spurts of exercise that give them physical activity, and strengthens the legs and heart in a short amount of time."

Stair climbing is especially popular among fitter, younger populations, said Scordino, though there are stepping machines for every fitness level. The NuStep Trainer, for example, is like a recumbent exercise bike that you push with your feet rather than pedal, and appeals to the less fit and older clients, she said.

Scordino agrees with experts who estimate that a 150-pound person burns about 1.5 calories for every 10 upbound steps taken, roughly the number of steps in the average flight of stairs. The heavier you are and the quicker you move, the more calories you'll burn. Carry a briefcase, a stack of books or files, and burn even more.

Here's another way to think of it. The average person burns about 1 or 2 calories riding in an elevator. That same person could burn 9 to 12 calories riding part of the way and climbing the last few flights. One University of Tennessee researcher estimates that taking one flight of stairs is equivalent to 38 steps on level ground. Ten steps or 38 steps — which would you rather do?

Stair climbing comes with a caution, though. If you have hip, knee, ankle or other joint problems, it might not be the exercise for you. Always be sure to check with your doctor first.

"If arthritis makes climbing a few flights of stairs painful, it might be best to find another form of exercise," said Larry Collins, a physician assistant and an assistant professor in the Department of Orthopaedics and Sports Medicine at the USF Health Morsani College of Medicine. "Stair climbing may also not be the best thing for avid runners. Those who run all week put lots of stress on their joints. Doing extra stair climbing in between runs probably isn't a good idea."

But Collins does think climbing a few flights of stairs at work, in a parking garage or at an office building is a good way for most people to get back into being physically active. Just take your time at first and don't get discouraged if it leaves you huffing and puffing after just one or two flights. Remember, climbing stairs is supposed to be challenging. Start out slowly; don't expect to climb stairs for an hour on your first outing. Combine a little stair climbing with walking in your neighborhood, for example, and both will eventually become easier as you get stronger.

If you prefer to climb stairs in buildings rather than at the gym, Collins recommends seeking out air-conditioned or well-ventilated stairwells. In all public places, choose stairs that are brightly lit and free of obstacles or loose treads. Stick to areas where you feel safe. Take along water and a towel to mop your brow and a cellphone in case you need to call for help. Once you reach the top, it's a good idea to take the elevator down, if available, or to stop and rest for a few minutes. Your legs might be wobbly, making the trip down more difficult and increasing the risk of tripping or falling.

"Going downstairs also puts more stress on your joints than climbing upstairs. If you decide to walk down, take a much slower pace and use the handrails," Collins said.

As your fitness level improves, you can increase the intensity by walking up two steps at a time, jogging part of the way, taking sideways steps and carrying hand weights.

Grissom has been climbing stairs since starting work at Morton Plant Hospital nine years ago. She doesn't even take a break when on vacation. She takes stairs at airports, in hotels, even at the Statue of Liberty.

"It keeps me physically fit, at a healthier weight and," she said, "on vacation I can eat whatever I want."

Contact Irene Maher at [email protected]

It keeps me physically fit, at a healthier weight and on vacation I can eat whatever I want.