Upstairs, downstairs

Looking up at the Tulip Sprial Staircase, Queen's House, Greenwich, London

Stairs and steps are every­where, yet many of us go to great lengths to avoid using them. What a waste! If you can learn to love stairs (or at least appre­ci­ate them!), you will soon start to feel fit­ter. Stair-​climbing is, quite simply, my all-​time best-​buy exer­cise

And it’s not just me: read how Charlie Williams used the stairs at Oxford Circus under­ground sta­tion for train­ing when he was a young ath­lete. Or what a dif­fer­ence they made to Pamela Rodger’s fit­ness. Stair-​climbing is really, really great for keep­ing fit.

Click to jump to…
Five steps to the ulti­mate free workout
Ways to build steps into your fit­ness routine

What’s so great about stairs?

It’s the way the body has to work that makes stair-​climbing a very effect­ive exer­cise. Put simply, whether you are going up or com­ing down, stairs are a battle-​ground between you and grav­ity, which fires up both your car­di­ovas­cu­lar (heart and lung) sys­tem and your leg and but­tock muscles. Going up is best for heart and lung fit­ness; but com­ing down will do great things for your front-​of-​thigh muscles and your bal­ance skills.

  • Climbing up can be an effect­ive car­dio (or aer­obic) workout
  • Going up and down strengthens hips, thighs, but­tocks and calf muscles
  • Coming down helps train and main­tain good bal­ance…
  • And once you get a good rhythm going, a stair-​climbing workout burns as many cal­or­ies as jog­ging.
How many stairs are enough?

Beware! If you are unused to climb­ing stairs and not very fit, it can quickly start feel­ing like truly hard work. It takes a bit of dis­cip­line and grit at this early stage to get bey­ond the dis­com­fort. But stick at it and things quickly improve.

warning exclamation markSafety: if you have a heart con­di­tion or breath­ing prob­lems (eg asthma), you should check with your GP before you take up stair-​climbing as an exer­cise. It may be bet­ter to increase your car­di­ovas­cu­lar fit­ness in less strenu­ous ways first

Start cau­tiously, listen­ing to your body. You need to climb just a few steps more than is com­fort­able, then aim to increase that num­ber by eg 10–15 more steps every couple of days. If you run out of steps, increase the chal­lenge with repeat climbs and fewer rests as you toughen up.

Five steps to the ulti­mate free workout

Strength drills for bet­ter step­ping

Heel raises
High knee lifts

Flexibility for fluid move­ment

Calf stretch
Hamstring stretch
Front-​of-​thigh stretch

… and here’s some sci­ence

A research study from 2000 showed that even a small amount of step­ping done reg­u­larly can improve your health. In the study, people climbed a nor­mal stair­case once a day in Week 1, twice a day in Week 2 and so on up to Week 7. After seven weeks they were tested against a con­trol group who had not done the stair-​climbing. The climb­ing group had improved their cho­les­terol and their heart and lung fit­ness com­pared to the con­trols. On aver­age, they had spend just 135 seconds on each stair-​climb.

Original research: Boreham CAG, Wallace WFM, Neville A. see Pub Med

Step 1: Find a suit­able set of steps or stairs, such as:

  • inside your own home
  • at a local shop­ping centre
  • in a multi-​storey build­ing such as an office block or hos­pital

Step 2: Play safe

  • make sure you are some­where you feel safe: well-​lit, used by oth­ers, open and access­ible
  • avoid rush hours or stair­ways that are con­stantly busy
  • avoid steps that have wet or slip­pery sur­faces
  • ensure there’s a decent hand-​rail – just in case you need it in the early days

Step 3: Dress for the occa­sion

  • wear lay­ers which you can take off and wrap around your waist or put in a back-​pack as you warm up
  • keep your hands free
  • take a bottle of water – it’s a tough workout!
  • wear proper flat-​heeled shoes or train­ers

Step 4: Get into good habits

  • keep upright and hold your head level at all times
  • push off from your toes and then place your whole foot on the next step up: avoid both flat-​footed and toe-​only step­ping
  • get into a steady rhythm at a speed that allows you to breathe without gasp­ing, and keep on the move, rather than lots of stop­ping and start­ing
  • stay close to the hand rail and use a light touch for bal­ance; avoid grip­ping or haul­ing your­self up by the rail. But aim to step without the rail after a few weeks’ prac­tice

Step 5: Come down gradu­ally

  • don’t be fooled by how easy it feels! Step evenly and stead­ily on the way down
  • avoid spring­ing, bound­ing or tak­ing two steps at a time until you have excel­lent muscle strength
  • if you have knee weak­ness or pain, do extra knee-​strengthening exer­cises LINK: your knees take a lot of strain on the way down
  • keep look­ing ahead, use eyes not head to glance down
  • stretch prop­erly at the end of your workout

Ways to build steps into your fit­ness routine

Listerhills steps on a sunny autumn day, by Tim Green at exer­cise: Start by aim­ing to climb your home stairs 10 times (up and down) dur­ing the day. You can space these climbs out across the day. Increase the total by 1 more climb (up and down) every day. When you reach 20 climbs, start to double up: always go up and down twice in one go. After a month of this, increase to three repeats at one go. Work up to 10 stair-​climbs at one go – you’ll be feel­ing pretty fit by this time!

Out and back trip: Make a visit to your chosen set of steps every day and then fol­low a sim­ilar ‘building-​up’ routine to the one above. You will have the added bene­fit of the walk there and back: do this at a brisk pace to warm you up ready for the climb­ing workout

Local cir­cuit: Plan a cir­cu­lar walk which includes sev­eral sets of steps or stairs along the way. Again, as you get fit­ter, you can up the chal­lenge by doing each set twice, or climb­ing faster, or repeat­ing the whole cir­cuit.

Plan your own mega-​climb: Find a mega-​stepping goal to work towards. eg: a very deep tube stair­case, a tall apart­ment or office block stair­well, a monu­ment or other pub­lic build­ing famed for its steps (see below). Read Pamela Rodger’s account to find out how you can build your fit­ness in pre­par­a­tion.

Use the gym step­per machine: if you already go to a gym, ask them to show you how to use the step­per. Most gyms have one or two along­side the tread­mills and bikes. Use deep, slow step­ping rather than shal­low quick steps, and stand upright with min­imal lean­ing or hold­ing on.

Advanced level power step­ping: Once you have decent leg strength, intro­duce a power ele­ment by climb­ing two steps at a time. This takes a big­ger push-​off, devel­op­ing power in your leg muscles. Start with eg, 6 sets of double steps, keep­ing on the move rather than paus­ing between each big step up, then revert to single step­ping for eg the next 24 steps before your next six double steps. It’s a kind of inter­val workout. You can increase the num­ber of doubles as your leg power increases.

Build steps into your life!

1920s' car being driven down the steps of Sydney Town HallMost of us have pro­grammed ourselves to use step-​free options for going up and down. We seem to be magic­ally, mag­net­ic­ally drawn to ramps, lifts and escal­at­ors. If you re-​set your head to step-​mode, you’ll sud­denly find your day filled with stair-​climbing oppor­tun­it­ies! Try these res­ol­u­tions for starters:

  • Wen you get to an escal­ator, don’t stop! Keep step­ping!
  • Always take the stairs at rail­way sta­tions and shop­ping malls
  • Always take the stairs inside shops and depart­ment stores
  • And res­ist the lift if you’re head­ing for the first or second floor.

Great London stair-​climbs

Covent Garden tube sta­tion

193 steps

Tower Bridge (to the exhib­i­tion centre)*

200 steps

The Monument *

311 steps

Hampstead tube sta­tion

320 steps

Big Ben (spiral stairs to the clock) 334 steps

St Paul’s Cathedral (to Golden Gallery) *

528 steps

All pub­licly access­ible but * indic­ates admis­sion charge

Step up for char­ity

You can use your stair-​climbing workout to pre­pare you for a big­ger bene­fit. Certain char­it­ies are start­ing to organ­ise stair-​challenges or ‘ver­tical road races’, where indi­vidu­als or teams com­pete as a fun­drais­ing effort.

In London, the NSPCC organ­ises the Gherkin chal­lenge (approx 1,000 steps) and Shelter, the home­less­ness cam­paign, has its annual Vertical Rush up Tower42 in the City (just under 1,000 steps).

The US Lung Association has a nation­wide pro­gramme of char­ity ‘fight for air’ climbs.

Step up to the ulti­mate chal­lenge

Fancy becom­ing a ver­tical racer? There’s a whole secret world of com­pet­it­ive stair-​climbing out there. Extreme sprint– and marathon-​climbers actu­ally train hard to com­pete through­out the year. Mostly this involves spring­ing up the stair­cases of inter­na­tional sky­scrapers, such as the Hanoi Vertical Run, the Eureka Climb Melbourne, Towerrun Berlin or the Empire State Building Run-​up in the US. All info at the offi­cial Tower Running webiste

But there are out­door step races, too, the longest in the world being the 11,674–step Niesen Stairway Run, which fol­lows the track of a funicu­lar rail­way up a Swiss moun­tain. It’s cer­tainly a dif­fer­ent kind of day out.

Click through for more amaz­ing out­door stair-​climbing events.

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