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.
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.
Safety: 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
Flexibility for fluid movement
… 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
Home 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!
Most 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
Tower Bridge (to the exhibition centre)*
The Monument *
Hampstead tube station
|Big Ben (spiral stairs to the clock)||334 steps|
St Paul’s Cathedral (to Golden Gallery) *
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.
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.