In Praise Of Stairs – exercise – Brief Article

Carol Krucoff

Health experts urge taking steps as a painless way to add activity to daily life.

One of the world’s best exercise devices is flee, easy to use, and readily available–in fact, you probably have dozens in your home and workplace.

They’re stairs, and lifting your body against gravity to climb them is one of the best exercises you can do for your heart, muscles, and bones. In a “no time for exercise” age, the steps all around us provide an ever-present way to fit physical activity into daily life.

Yet most people avoid them. Given the choice between riding an escalator or climbing an adjacent flight of stairs, 95 percent of the people observed by researchers from Johns Hopkins University Medical Center in Baltimore chose the path of least physical effort. This finding confirmed conclusions of a classic study by Yale University obesity expert Kelly Brownell, who also discovered that he could triple the slim percentage of stair climbers by posting a sign that read: “Your heart needs the exercise; here’s your chance!”

We live in a “toxic physical-activity environment,” says Brownell, who contends that America’s obesity epidemic results in part from living in a culture where moving walkways, automatic doors, remote controls, and other conveniences make it less necessary–or possible–to move our bodies throughout the day.

“Most people don’t realize how little physical activity they actually get,” he says, “and how important it is to use every opportunity they have to be active.”

Lifestyle activity–such as choosing stairs over elevators–is increasingly being urged by public-health experts, who point to mounting evidence that small amounts of exercise accumulated throughout the day can provide significant health benefits. For example, the Harvard Alumni Health Study examined the lifestyle habits of more than 11,000 men and found that those who climbed at least 20 floors per week had about a 20 percent lower risk of stroke and of death from all causes during the study period, according to I-Min Lee, assistant professor of epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health.

Encouraging employees to take the stairs is becoming a popular strategy at worksite wellness programs around the country, including the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, where signs are posted near elevators throughout the campus urging people to climb steps instead.

“NIH is full of very busy people, and we’re trying to remind them that little bits of exercise can be incorporated into even the busiest day,” says Susanne Strickland, who helped launch NIH’s “take the stairs” campaign in 1998 when she was director of the institute’s worksite health-promotion program.

A health-promotion committee developed a variety of whimsical slogans for the signs, including: “Why WEIGHT for an elevator? Take steps to save time and burn calories.” “Burn some stress; take the stairs.” “Bone up to good health; climb the stairs.”

The campaign has generated extensive positive feedback, although there has been no effort made to measure any increase in stair use, says Strickland, a registered dietitian and self-proclaimed “perpetual stair climber.”

“It wasn’t a research project, but a way to alert people to a free fitness opportunity,” she says. “It always amazes me that people will stand and wait for an elevator to go to the fitness center and use the stair climber. The signs help people recognize that exercise doesn’t only have to happen at the gym.”

For Anne Decker, 57, a public-affairs specialist at the National Institute on Aging, climbing eight flights each morning to get to her office, plus several flights throughout the day, is her main form of exercise.

“It’s one of the few chances I have during the day to do something physical,” says Decker, whose doctor encouraged her to start climbing stairs two years ago when test results showed she had low bone density.

“At first I couldn’t do eight flights and had to take the elevator part way,” she recalls. “Then I’d do a few flights, go get a drink of water, then do a few more flights. It took about a month before I could climb all eight flights without a break.” Although she admits “it’s still an effort to make that climb–especially since I’m always carrying heavy bags–it’s really improved my stamina, and it makes me feel good to do it.”

For those who want a more intense workout, continuous stair climbing can be an effective way to build lower body strength and cardiovascular endurance. One of the most popular exercise trends of the last decade, step aerobics, is based on going up and down a step for 30 to 60 minutes. And one of the most popular exercise machines during that same time period, the stair climber, relies on this same motion.

Athletes have been running up and down stadium steps as part of training for years. Business travelers, like “NBC Nightly News” anchor Tom Brokaw, often climb hotel stairs as a workout.

“I find the back stairs in the hotel and run up and down them for 12 to 15 minutes,” Brokaw told Men’s Health magazine. “Then, back in my room, I do 35 to 40 push-ups and three sets of sit-ups.”

Competitive “steppers” can attempt a 1,000-foot vertical climb, rising 94 floors and 1,632 steps, by entering the annual “stairathon” at the John Hancock Building in Chicago. Last year, Joseph Kenny, then 41, of Indiana set a “Hustle Up the Hancock” record of 10 minutes, 22 seconds–a feat he repeated in February at the third annual event.

This kind of intense stair climbing may be inadvisable for people with knee problems, such as arthritis, as well as those with heart or lung disorders, notes Perry Esterson, a physical therapist and athletic trainer with Physiotherapy Associates in northern Virginia. But taking the stairs in daily life is a great way for most people to boost their fitness and strengthen the muscles that support the knee.

“The thickest cartilage in the body is behind the patella (kneecap), so it’s designed to withstand a lot of stress,” he says. “And the more you go up and down the stairs, the stronger you’ll become and the easier that activity will be.”

COPYRIGHT 2000 Saturday Evening Post Society

COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group

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