Stair-​climbing: a step change in keeping fit

Breakneck steps, Quebec City, c1870

Climbing stairs is pos­sibly the best
and cheapest route to fit­ness ever inven­ted.
It’s even a sport in its own right.
By Jane Taylor

There will be no lie-​in for the England rugby full-​back Ben Foden on Sunday morn­ing. Recent dad and only just back from the Lions Argentina tour, Ben’s the poor inno­cent who has agreed to be the celebrity pace-​setter in the NSPCC’s ‘Gherkin Challenge’ race. Foden says he has never done a stair-​climbing race before. If he thinks any old élite rugby pro can leg it up 1,037 steps just like that, he’s going to know dif­fer­ently by Sunday even­ing. Good luck with that, Ben.

The NSPCC star­ted send­ing people up the City of London’s star build­ing in 2010, after one of their sup­port­ers had spot­ted the idea at a hugely suc­cess­ful fund-​raising run up the Sears Tower in Chicago (2,109 steps). After a low-​key start, the event has been gath­er­ing momentum, so this year the anti-​child cruelty char­ity has expan­ded it into a weekend-​long mid­sum­mer fam­ily fest­ival. Saturday fea­tures a ver­tical fun-​run; on Sunday it’s all about hard-​core com­pet­it­ive stair-​climbing, with cor­por­ate teams pit­ting them­selves against fit­ness fan­at­ics and even élite stair-​climbers who actu­ally do this kind of thing as their sport of choice.

Because, believe it or not, stair-​climbing is an inter­na­tional sport with a full global com­pet­it­ive sched­ule and a tower-​running World Cup cham­pi­on­ship, com­pris­ing 150 events across 25 coun­tries. Michael Reichetzeder, exec­ut­ive dir­ector of the Towerrunning World Council, says their mis­sion is to become an Olympic sport. The uK is unusual, he explains, in hold­ing run-​ups only as char­ity events; else­where they are pure sport­ing fix­tures, attract­ing 65,500 ath­letes world­wide, includ­ing, increas­ingly, pro­fes­sional ath­letes from other dis­cip­lines such as dis­tance run­ning.

Tower-​running is a crazy urban muta­tion of the tra­di­tional hard-​man sport of fell-​running, in which wiry, sol­it­ary fig­ures sprint up and dance down moun­tains in implaus­ibly fast times. The tower-​runners have big­ger thighs and don’t much care for down­hill run­ning – too hard on the knees. But they are most cer­tainly tough.

If the train­ing is some­what soul­less and the fin­an­cial rewards hardly Olympian, the city­scape views from the sum­mits of amaz­ing edi­fices such as the Avaz Twist Tower in Sarajevo (780 steps), the Eureka Tower, Melbourne (1,642) Torre Colpatria (980) in Bogota, or – the toughest of all — Taiwan’s Taipei 101 (2,046 steps), must be some com­pens­a­tion.

Life without steps

1920s car drives down Sydney Town Hall steps, from FlickrHow per­verse it is that this extreme sport is on the rise at a time when the vast major­ity of us make it our busi­ness to avoid stairs at all costs. For dec­ades now, plan­ners and archi­tects have con­spired to remove the effort of ver­tical ascent from our daily lives, repla­cing it with ramps, lifts and the blessed escal­ator.

Dr Frank Eves, reader in life­style phys­ical activ­ity at Birmingham University, has spent his pro­fes­sional career work­ing out how to get us to climb more stairs. In shop­ping malls, where only 5 per cent of us bother with steps, he says, “We put up mes­sages on the way to the lift to tell people of the health bene­fits – heart dis­ease, cal­or­ific expendit­ure — that they could get if they took the stairs. ”

Just how good is stair-​climbing?

It’s great. Going up has an energy-​cost value of 9.6 METS (that’s 9.6 times more energy than sit­ting doing noth­ing). This score is higher than almost any other car­dio exer­cise, includ­ing jog­ging, and is on a par with vig­or­ous swim­ming. Even bet­ter, the more you weigh, the greater the calorie-​burn.

According to research by Dr Lewis Halsey at Roehampton University, London, the best weight-​loss strategy is one step at a time, not double steps. His team found that climb­ing a 15m stair­way (that’s about 100 steps) five times a day burns an aver­age 302 cal­or­ies weekly using the one-​step strategy, versus 266 cal­or­ies using double-​steps. At a rate of 75 steps a minute, it’ll take less than half an hour a week and no gym fees!

Your legs will feel the bene­fits a couple of weeks after they exper­i­ence the ini­tial burn of the intens­ive muscle work involved. You will be improv­ing both power and strength endur­ance. Don’t dis­miss the bene­fits of com­ing down, either. The energy expendit­ure may be less, but the work your leg muscles have to do against grav­ity is par­tic­u­larly valu­able for both muscle and bone strength.

Design and plan­ning also make a big dif­fer­ence: “There really is no need for escal­at­ors,” Dr Eves says. “Disabled access can be provided by lifts.” Is he sug­gest­ing remov­ing them? ”You could make escal­at­ors go slower. You could make them less con­veni­ent to use.” His research shows that these days, for most of us, time-​saving trumps con­veni­ence, which is why 17 per cent of us take the stairs at sta­tions and even more in an office build­ing – as long as the stairs are the most obvi­ous route.

One well-​evidenced fact is clearly not obvi­ous enough: stair-​climbing is pos­sibly the best and cheapest route to fit­ness ever inven­ted (see box). Intense and power­ful, it’s a com­plete train­ing pack­age for heart, lungs, bones, muscles and flex­ib­il­ity. Unless you are con­sid­er­ing tak­ing up tower-​running, it’s best to accli­mat­ise your­self by increas­ing your stair-​climbing gradu­ally over sev­eral months, aim­ing even­tu­ally to make stairs your life­style choice at every encounter.

The phys­ical con­fid­ence it will bestow can come in handy at the strangest times. A few years back I found myself arriv­ing, after a tor­tu­ous eight-​hour jour­ney, very late at the bot­tom of Adam’s Peak, a remote and sac­red moun­tain in east­ern Sri Lanka. If I was going to catch the legendary “shadow foot­print” cast over the 2,200m moun­tain at sun­rise, I would need to climb the 5,200 steps in world record time. With my years of dogged stair-​climbing to draw on, I made it! And boy, was it worth it.

What do you think? Post a com­ment below.…

Read more about stair-​climbing at If Ginger…

Pamela Rodger, 87, gets in train­ing to climb Big Ben

How Charlie Williams used the escal­ator to train at work

Upstairs, Downstairs — prac­tical tips on stair-​climbing as exer­cise

This art­icle first appeared in ‘The Independent’ on 18 June 2013

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