Stairway to Heaven

Looking for ways to burn a few extra calories, build your strength, or tone your rear end? Stair climbing is a great way to get an excellent aerobic workout, no matter where you are or what your fitness level.

You can take the stairs in any building that has them, in your workplace, your house, a parking garage, or your dentist office. Take the stairs instead of using the elevator or escalator. You can use them for moderate exercise or a full-fledged, high-energy workout. It’s free, easy, and effective.

Stepping up on a stair is great work for the leg and buttock muscles. Stair climbing builds more muscle than running, and is excellent for balance, strength, and elevating the heart rate. You even get a good workout going downstairs, when your quadriceps work hard supporting you. The FruitGuys’ Aaron Smith got quite the stair workout on Jan. 31 during Chicago’s Step Up for Kids benefit for Children’s Memorial Hospital. He climbed 90 flights in 16 minutes—fast enough to finish in the top 100.

Using the stairs casually, as an alternative to the elevator, can burn about 640 calories per hour (cal/hr) for a 140 lb person. Doing a stair workout, which can involve running up stairs, taking stairs two at a time, and other strenuous exercises burn about 950 cal/hr for the same person. For comparison, moderate cycling, skiing, swimming, and fast walking are all on par with casual stair climbing. Active sex clocks in at 430 cal/hr. Fast running and competitive singles tennis are on par with a stair workout.

Of course, most of us are not inclined to spend an hour on the stairs, but even short bursts can contribute to fitness and waistline. A 15-minute stair climb offers the same workout as 30 minutes of running on flat ground, and with less impact. At work, using the stairs can bring some welcome blood flow after you have been sitting for a while, and can be as effective as coffee to wake you up.

If you want to try a more serious workout, treat it as you would a run. Bring some water along so you can stay hydrated, and wear supportive athletic shoes. Do a few minutes of quadriceps and calf stretches, and then walk a flight up and back to warm up. Pace yourself—start by running a flight, then walking the next. Alternatively, you can create sets – start with running one floor up, then walking down. After a minute’s rest repeat. Over time build up to more flights per set. Stay alert when rounding corners. Watch and listen for others using the stairs, and for doors opening. Never run down the stairs, which can easily lead to falls. If you find you are hooked, there are competitive stair climbing races held in buildings around the world.

After your first workout, you might just find yourself singing, “and she’s climbing a stairway to heaven.”

Stair climbing is not recommended for people with knee injuries or high blood pressure (untreated). Always check with your doctor before beginning a new exercise program.

Rebecca Taggart is a San Francisco yoga instructor.

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