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Climb to Health With Stair Climbing

By Harvey B. Simon, M.D. - author of The No Sweat Exercise Plan


Stair-climbing is the best-kept secret in exercise for health. It is a great way to add CME points during the course of daily life, and it will help improve your leg strength and balance as well as your heart and waistline.

By way of example, let me tell you the story of Lewis Ripps. Lew is a trim seventy-two-year-old businessman who runs six and a half miles a day along the hilly Berkshire roads when he is at his Massachusetts vacation home. But he’s in Massachusetts only for most summer and autumn weekends and for occasional weekends during the rest of the year. At home in New Jersey, Lew doesn’t run -- nor does he swim, bike, use exercise machines, or walk for health.

Mr. Ripps seems to be a weekend warrior who is breaking all the rules. At any age, sporadic intense exercise is a bad idea, and at age seventy-two, it’s an invitation for disaster. But Lew is quite safe because he stays active the year round -- not through any formal exercise program, but by walking stairs. And he does quite a lot of that; in fact, he averages eighteen long, steep flights a day at the New Jersey manufacturing plant he manages.

Coaches, cardiologists, and housewives have long been in on the secrets of stairs. Many football coaches “ask” their players to charge up flight after flight of stadium steps to get in shape, and other competitive athletes put gymnasium stairwells to similar use. In the days before stress testing held sway, doctors would often walk up stairs with patients to check their cardiopulmonary function. Even today, cardiologists tell patients they are fit enough to have sex if they can walk up two or three flights comfortably, and surgeons may clear patients for lung operations if they can manage five or six flights. As for housewives, taking care of a two- or three-story home is one reason American women outlive their husbands by an average of 5.4 years.

What’s so special about stairs? Researchers in Canada answered the question by monitoring seventeen healthy male volunteers with an average age of sixty-four while they walked, lifted weights, or climbed stairs. Stair-climbing was the most demanding. It was twice as taxing as brisk walking on the level and 50 percent harder than walking up a steep incline or lifting weights. And peak exertion was attained much faster by climbing stairs than by walking, which is why nearly everyone huffs and puffs going up stairs, at least until their second wind kicks in after a few flights.

Because stairs are so taxing, only the very young at heart should attempt to charge up long flights. But at a slow, steady pace, stairs can be a health plus for the rest of us. Begin modestly with a flight or two, and then escalate as you improve. Take the stairs whenever you can; if you have a long way to go, walk partway, and then switch to an elevator. Use the railing for balance and security (especially going down), and don’t try the stairs after a heavy meal or if you feel unwell.

Even at a slow pace, you’ll earn CME points two to three times faster climbing stairs than walking briskly on the level. The Harvard Alumni Study found that men who average at least eight flights a day enjoy a 33 percent lower mortality rate than men who are sedentary -- and that’s even better than the 22 percent lower death rate men earned by walking 1.3 miles a day. That may be a bit optimistic, but even if you don’t count on just eight flights a day to keep you healthy, you should add stairs to your CME menu at every opportunity.

Want to stay well? Step right up!

Reprinted from The No Sweat Exercise Plan: Lose Weight, Get Healthy, and Live Longer by Harvey B. Simon, M.D. Copyright © 2006 President and Fellows of Harvard College. Published by McGraw-Hill

Author
Harvey B. Simon, M.D., is an associate professor of medicine at
Harvard Medical School, a member of the Health Sciences Faculty at MIT, and the founding editor of Harvard Men's Health Watch. He is a graduate of Yale College and Harvard Medical School. Since completing his postgraduate training at Massachusetts General Hospital and the National Institutes of Health, Dr. Simon has maintained an active clinical practice at Massachusetts General Hospital. He is the award-winning author of five previous books on health and fitness and received the London Prize for Excellence in Teaching from Harvard and MIT.

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