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