If you live in an apartment building or a multi-story house, you may dread taking the stairs each day. And, if you're older, you might think that dodging the stairs means you're less likely to stumble and trip. But in reality, walking up a couple of flights of steps actually does plenty to preserve your balance as you age.
"Even though you can use a railing for assistance, the exercise of climbing stairs improves balance because you're needing to balance on one leg as you press into one leg and lift the other leg onto the same or next step," says Laura Flynn Endres, CPT, a California-based personal trainer who works with older adults.
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Standing on one leg (as you do when climbing stairs) also helps strengthen a variety of muscles, including your core, glutes, quads and calves.
But the benefits of stair climbing don't stop there. Learn all the reasons you may want to skip the elevator and hit the stairs.
How to Climb Stairs Safely
It's important to climb stairs in a progressive manner and start small. Step onto a low step and hold onto both railings, Flynn Endres says. Once you've been able to do this easily on a regular basis, you can level things up.
"From there, work your way up to stepping onto higher steps, stepping without holding on, alternating legs, repeating one leg over and over and so on," she says.
You also want to focus on strengthening the muscles you use to climb stairs, such as your quads, hamstrings, glutes and calves, as well as keeping up with your mobility and balance exercises. Adding these exercises into your routine will translate to safer and more efficient stair climbing.
1. It Builds Lower-Body Strength
Because climbing motions move your hip, knee and ankle joints, stairs can help strengthen all the muscles in your legs, including your quads, hamstrings, glutes and calves, Flynn Endres says.
"You'll also work your hip flexors when you raise your leg, your gluteus medius [smaller glute muscle] to help keep you balanced, your lower back and abs as you lean into the stairs and the muscles of your feet — especially if your heel hangs off the step when you climb," she says.
Strengthening these muscles is important as you get older because age-related muscle loss can put you at a higher risk for falls. Roughly one in four older adults experiences a fall each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But when you have a solid base of support, you're less likely to take a tumble.
2. It Helps You Maintain Mobility
Mobility is key to maintaining your independence later in life, according to the National Institute of Aging. Simply put, mobility exercises keep your joints in top shape by moving them through their full range of motion. This allows you to do the things you love, like playing with your grandkids on the floor or tending to your garden.
"Climbing stairs can improve mobility because it requires the use of the ankle, knee and hip joints. It's a fairly dynamic exercise that requires power, balance and strength," Flynn Endres says. "While climbing stairs may not specifically improve flexibility, moving through the range of motion needed can help us keep the flexibility required."
3. It Boosts Your Cardiovascular Fitness
There's a reason climbing stairs can get your heart pounding, even for the most trained athletes. Climbing stairs itself is a cardio workout, which means it strengthens your heart and improves your aerobic capacity.
In a January 2019 study in Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism, a small group of sedentary adults quickly climbed three flights of stairs three times a day, with 1 to 4 hours of rest in between. After climbing three days a week for six weeks, these stair climbing "snacks," or intervals, helped improve cardiovascular fitness, with the average time to climb up the stairs decreasing over the six-week period.
What's more, research suggests that the cardiovascular fitness benefits of stair climbing are comparable to a 1-mile walk. Researchers of a small February 2017 study in the International Conference on Movement, Health and Exercise found that people who climbed seven floors twice a day, five days a week for a month and people who walked 1 mile on a treadmill for the same amount of time all saw improvements in their cardio fitness.
4. It Improves Bone Density
Contrary to what many think, your bones actually get stronger with exercise.
Any weight-bearing exercise, like climbing stairs, forces you to work against gravity, conditioning your bones to take on load and therefore strengthening them, according to the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases. This helps prevent the risk of osteoporosis, a condition in which your bones become weak and brittle, which increases with age.
- Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports: "Effects of Stair-Climbing on Balance, Gait, Strength, Resting Heart Rate, and Submaximal Endurance in Healthy Seniors"
- Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism: "Do Stair Climbing Exercise “Snacks” Improve Cardiorespiratory Fitness?"
- International Conference on Movement, Health and Exercise: "Comparison between Stair Climbing and 1 Mile Walking in Relation to Cardiorespiratory Fitness Among Sedentary Adults"
- National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases: "Exercise for Your Bone Health"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Keep on Your Feet—Preventing Older Adult Falls"
- National Institute of Aging: "Maintaining Mobility and Preventing Disability Are Key to Living Independently as We Age"