Climbing over 50 steps of stairs a day may help reduce heart disease risk
- Climbing 50 stair steps daily may reduce the risk of cardiovascular diseases such as stroke, blood clots, and heart attacks by as much as 20%, according to a new study.
- The study saw these benefits with five flights of stairs a day, comparing them to people who did not climb any stairs daily.
- Walking up steps may provide an enhanced form of aerobic exercise in which the body battles gravity to move upward, thus using more muscles and expending more energy.
Climbing stairs regularly may significantly reduce your risk of atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease, and of cardiovascular disease (CVD) in general, a new study suggests.
The study finds that people who climbed 50 stairs over the course of a day reduced their risk of cardiovascular disease by 20% compared to people who did not climb any stairs daily.
While the study focused primarily on atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease (ASCVD) — which includes stroke, heart attacks, and blood clots — its conclusions apply to CVD in general, according to its corresponding author.
The findings are published in the journal Atherosclerosis.
Stair climbing can protect the heart
The authors of the study analyzed data from 458,860 adult participants in the UKBiobank. They collected information regarding the individuals’ stair-climbing, lifestyle, and sociodemographic factors as baseline data and then again five years later. They followed the participants for 12.5 years.
They then cross-referenced the participants’ stair-climbing habits with coronary artery disease, ischemic stroke, or acute complications, which they used as markers of atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease for this study.
The researchers assumed an average staircase to be 10 steps. The researchers tracked the incidence of atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease for people climbing their staircases 1–5, 6–10, 11–15, 16–20, and equal to or greater than 21 times a day.
Although the greatest protective effect of stair-climbing was associated with people who were not considered at particular CVD risk due to genetics, climbing stairs also offset other participants’ pre-existing CVD risk.
How climbing stairs can benefit heart health
The study’s corresponding author, Dr. Lu Qi, director of Tulane University’s Obesity Research Center, spoke to Medical News Today about the various ways climbing stairs may benefit health.
“Climbing stairs is a kind of vigorous exercise which has shown benefits on lowering various risk factors for heart disease. [Climbing stairs may help in] lowering body weight, improving metabolic status and inflammation, and reducing other diseases which may increase the risk of heart disease, such as diabetes.”
— Dr. Lu Qi
Compared to, say, brisk walking, Dr. Cheng-Han Chen, medical director of the Structural Heart Program at Saddleback Medical Center in Laguna Hills, California, who was not involved in the study said, “It’s basically [a]n enhanced form of aerobic exercise because not only do you get the motion — the movement that you get from the walk — you actually engage other muscle groups.”
“As you can imagine, walking up stairs is harder exercise than walking on level ground. That’s because not only are you moving your body, you’re moving it against gravity, and you’re basically pushing yourself up and out, right? You’re actually building your muscles in your lower body, but you’re also building muscle in your core, in your lower back,” Dr. Chen explained.
“Because [climbing stairs is] harder, you’re doing more exercise, and more exercise is better for you. We think that [climbing] stairs actually gives you three times as much exercise as the same amount of time walking on the ground.”
— Dr. Cheng-Han Chen
Dr. Chen suspected that the speed at which one mounts the stairs may matter in that going faster means more of a workout.
When stair climbing is difficult
However, stair-climbing is not the only form of exercise one can do to improve and maintain their health. Dr. Chen expressed concern about not discouraging anyone from doing what they can. He pointed out that joint problems can get in the way of going up 50 stairs or many at all.
“I don’t want to dissuade people from walking on level ground because even walking on level ground is great. [A]ny exercise is better than no exercise,” he told MNT.
“If someone’s reading an article, and like, ‘Oh, boy, you know, they want us to run up the stairs, and I’m 75 years old, and my joints hurt. I’m just not going to do it. I can’t exercise at all.’ Going upstairs is probably better than walking, but definitely walking is better than sitting on the sofa,” concluded Dr. Chen.
Why cardiovascular disease is dangerous
According to a 2022 study, the overall prevalence of ASCVD in the U.S. in 2019 was 24.0 million people or about 10% of the population above the age of 21.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also reports that one in every five deaths in the United States in 2021 — about 695,000 — were due to CVD. About 805,000 U.S. residents have a heart attack annually, with 605,000 being a first heart attack, and the remainder being recurring attacks.
Coronary heart disease, which includes angina, myocardial infarction, and coronary artery stenosis, is the leading cause of death in the West, responsible for 370,000 fatalities each year.
About 795,000 individuals experience a stroke each year in the U.S., causing about 137,000 deaths. Strokes are the fifth leading cause of death and the main cause of major long-term disability in America. The most common form of stroke, an ischemic stroke, is due to atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease.
In younger years, atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease is more common in men than in women, but that dissipates after menopause, perhaps due to the loss of women’s protective sex hormones with age.