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Elevator or stairs? Your choice could boost longevity, study finds

Climbing stairs is a good way to get quick bursts of aerobic exercise, says cardiologist Dr. Carlin Long.
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Climbing stairs is a good way to get quick bursts of aerobic exercise, says cardiologist Dr. Carlin Long.

At a time when less than halfof adults in the U.S. get the recommended amount of exercise, there is new evidence that climbing stairs can reduce the risk of heart disease and help people live longer.

A new meta-analysis presentedat a European Society of Cardiology conference finds that people in the habit of climbing stairs had about a 39% lower likelihood of death from heart disease, compared to those who didn't climb stairs. They also had a lower risk of heart attacks and strokes.

"I was surprised that such a simple form of exercise can reduce all-cause mortality," says study author Dr. Sophie Paddock, of the University of East Anglia and Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital Foundation Trust in the UK.

She and her colleagues looked at data from about 480,000 participants, ranging in age from mid-30s to mid-80s – about half were women. Paddock says the findings fit with a body of evidence pointing to the benefits of moderate-intensity exercise.

The moment you start climbing steps, your body responds. "Your heart rate goes up, your cardiac output goes up, and your circulatory status improves," explainsDr. Manish Parikh, chief of cardiology at NewYork-Presbyterian Brooklyn Methodist Hospital. "And all of those we know have positive impacts," he says.

So, how much stair climbing is enough? One study found climbing six to ten flights a day was linked to a reduced risk of premature death. And another study found climbing more than five flights a day lowered the riskof cardiovascular disease by 20%.

To calculate this, researchers analyzed participants' risk of heart disease based on factors including blood pressure, cholesterol, smoking history, family history and genetic risk factors. Participants filled out questionnaires about their lifestyle and exercise habits including stair climbing. Over the course of 12 years, the stair climbers fared better at fending off heart disease. Notably, people who stopped climbing stairs during this time saw their risk rise. It's a reminder that in order to benefit from exercise, you've got to keep doing it.

The benefits can kick in pretty quickly. A review published earlier this year found a minimum of four to eight weeks are needed to start improving your cardiometabolic risk. The study found regular stair climbing can improve body composition, blood pressure, insulin sensitivity and blood pressure.

If you're trying to incorporate more movement into your day, adding stair climbing is a good way to get quick bursts of aerobic exercise, says Dr. Carlin Long, a cardiologist at University of California, San Francisco. "I think if people are able to achieve six to ten flights of exercise on stairs a day, that that would be a good target," but this will depend on your personal level of fitness, Long says.

"Exercise is one of the best approaches to cardiovascular fitness," Long says, and stair climbing can be convenient. "It doesn't require a gym membership," he says and many people can climb stairs at home or at work. Long says there's also value in more sustained exercise, such as a longer bike ride, a walk or jog, or a treadmill session, to meet the recommended30 minutes a day of exercise.

Taking the stairs can also help build muscle. "Climbing stairs can be a wonderful mix of both aerobic exercise and resistance training," says Dr. Tamara Horwich, a cardiologist at UCLA who focuses on women's heart health.

You raise your heart rate and work your muscles at the same time. "You are building up those leg muscles by having to pull your weight up to the next stair," she says. And this is a key benefit given that only24% of adults in the U.S. meet the recommended targets for both aerobic and muscle-strengthening exercise.

If you're not in the habit of stair climbing, you may have to start slowly.

If you track steps on their FitBit or Apple, these devices can be used to track climbing, too. "So instead of just looking at steps, [you] can also look at the number of stairs climbed and try to increase that," she says. It's a good way to gauge progress.

This story was edited by Jane Greenhalgh

Copyright 2024 NPR

Allison Aubrey is a correspondent for NPR News, where her stories can be heard on Morning Edition and All Things Considered. She's also a contributor to the PBS NewsHour and is one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.
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