Climbing Stairs – Beats Jogging and It’s Quicker!

I want to encourage you – any time you need to go upstairs in a building – don’t take the elevator. Find the stairwell, and your body and mind will appreciate the few more minutes that it takes. This is a wonderful article about the huge benefits of regular stair climbing.
STAIRBy Nancy Bruning 

My most recent article was all about how you can use the steps and step streets in northern Manhattan as part of your fitness plan.

As a reminder, the reasons you’d want to climb stairs at every opportunity include: it’s a low-impact alternative to running; it builds muscles in your lower body; it improves your endurance; it increases your metabolism and helps burn fat; it’s efficient; and its’ free.

In this article, I’ll add a little-known surprising benefit that I didn’t know about until recently.

In case you haven’t noticed, we have lots of indoor steps too and that means we have a health club wherever there are stairs.

Why not take advantage of this convenient exercise tool—whether at home, at work, or at school? I often recommend this tactic to my clients who have trouble fitting formal exercise sessions into their busy lives, or can’t afford health clubs or don’t like them. You’d be surprised how easy it is to sneak in a couple of stairs here and there throughout the day. Because stair climbing is more intense than walking, and every little bit counts, you don’t need to do it for very long to reap the benefits.

For the past six years, The New York City Department of Health has partnered with The New York Chapter of the American Institute of Architects on a yearly conference, “Fit City.” Each year, key thinkers and practitioners discuss how we can make the city more fitness friendly. Part of the plan is to creatively re-think building design in order to encourage people to take the stairs whenever they can, instead of the elevator or escalator.

One recurring theme has been to encourage architects to design buildings with staircases that are located up front, and elevators towards the back (the opposite of what we have been seeing). They also could be more attractive to be in, with windows or skylights, or retrofitted with artwork and pleasant colors.

I remember one year, the staircase at fashionista Diane von Furstenberg’s new offices were presented—the hope was that by making the stairs an open design and decorating it with hundreds (thousands?) of Swarovski crystals, employees would be more likely to scamper up and down the staircases.

Dr. Karen Lee, Director of the Built Environment at the New York City Health Department, believes that, “Daily stair use is an easy and inexpensive way for people to incorporate physical activity into their life. Stair climbing is a vigorous activity that can burn more calories per minute than jogging. Just two minutes a day has been calculated to burn enough calories to prevent the average yearly weight gains seen in U.S. adults. ”

That’s pretty impressive!

According to Dr. Lee, “The NYC Health Department has been working with building owners and managers to get more stairs in buildings opened up for daily use. We also make available for free by calling 311 simple and effective signs that building owners and managers can post at elevators and escalators to encourage people to ‘Burn Calories, Not Electricity. Take the Stairs!'”

And it seems that simply posting the signs really works, according to Dr. Lee’s study, which was recently published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

Signs were posted in three different types of buildings. Right after the signs were posted, stair use increased 9.2% at a health clinic, 34.7% at an academic building and 33.6% at an affordable housing site. At the health clinic and affordable housing units the signs were left in place, and increased stair use was pretty much maintained at a nine-month follow-up.

While delighted with these results of indoor stairs, Dr. Lee reminds us, “Additional opportunities in NYC such as outdoor street steps can also be incorporated into your daily routine when you encounter them or into an intentional exercise routine.”

In case you find climbing stairs to daunting for some reason, don’t worry—it’s also good for you to go DOWN the stairs. In fact, going down the stairs is actually better for you than going up—in some ways. Studies show that while climbing up stairs (or walking uphill) is a great way to get a cardiovascular workout and lower triglycerides, descending the stairs (or walking downhill) is a better way to help control blood sugar—which could help stave off diabetes, or contribute to controlling it if you already have blood sugar problems.

Going either up or down helps reduce LDL cholesterol.

Stuart Dean, a local yoga/qigong instructor, says, “Walking down stairs actually works the leg muscles in a way that is quite different from climbing stairs.” It has to do with the way the muscles are worked—simply put, going up they contract, going down they stretch.

Dean continues, “It seems that when you do stretch work you are engaging a very different set of neural pathways and calling upon a very different set of nutrients than you otherwise do. Science has a long way to go in understanding this but it seems that the chemistry underlying stretch work helps counteract and possibly prevent the breakdown of internal metabolism that results in some types of diabetes.”

He also points out that the injuries resulting when an older person falls often are ultimately fatal. “And stairs are often where those falls occur, especially when going down them. As it turns out, though, it is possible that the reason elderly people tend to fall down stairs is that they have not been doing enough stretch work. Ironically, then, it seems that the elderly should be practicing going down stairs!”

Dean offers some tips on going down stairs: Never have your hands in your pockets; always try to have at least one hand free; and if you are over 50, try to stay at least near the side of the stairs and the handrail if there is one.

So, if you have diabetes or if you are over, say, 50, talk to your health care provider about exercise that emphasizes stretch work (you might want to use the phrase ‘eccentric muscle contraction’ to get their attention, since this is what it is called in technical language).

Just for fun, if you start climbing stairs in earnest, you might like to know that many major cities hold tower running or stair race events in their most notable tall buildings, including the Empire State Building in New York.

And there’s an app called Monumental to track your steps and translate that into climbing a real Monument, such as Mount Olympus, and challenge your friends to compete. It then supplies you with views and allows you to share your achievement on Facebook and Twitter.

For more information and to download the NYC Department of Health sign to print and post in your building:

Nancy Bruning has a master’s degree in public health, is a certified personal trainer, and is the author or co-author of over 25 books on health and fitness. Her next book, “Nancercize: 101 Things to Do on a Park Bench” will soon be published. She also is the Chair of the Friends Committee of the Fort Tryon Part Trust and leads “Nancercize” outdoor fitness experiences and weight loss workshops. Visit Nancy’s web site at, hear her at, or email her at .

Thanks to Manhattan Times for this interesting post.

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3 thoughts on “Climbing Stairs – Beats Jogging and It’s Quicker!

  1. When combining free weights with traditional stair climbing, you can create the ultimate upper and lower body workout. Stair climbing is a cardiovascular exercise that focuses on the repetitive motion of climbing stairs. This can be completed on a standard set of stairs or on a piece of gym equipment typically referred to as a stairmaster. In addition to utilizing multiple lower body muscles and joints, this exercise strengthens your abdominal muscles, heart and lungs.
    Martina Rowland recently posted..No last blog posts to return.My Profile

  2. While climbing stairs is a lower impact workout than running, according to the “New York Times,” going back down the stairs can increase the impact on the body twice as much as climbing up. If you have knee and/or foot issues, you may wish to climb the stairs up and take the elevator back down to avoid further damage to your body while reaping the benefits of stair climbing. Another option is to simply use a stairmill because you only climb up the stairs.
    Orville Banks recently posted..No last blog posts to return.My Profile

  3. Orville, I really appreciate your comment about going DOWN the stairs. I never thought of the impact that has on different parts of our body. But when I picture in my mind actually going down a long flight of stairs, my tendency is to go quickly, and this can really have a negative result.

    Thanks again for your insight!

    Stephen Bolin

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