Breathless at the Top? How Stair Climbing Affects Your Heart Rate

There are ways to improve your heart health if stair climbing raises your heart rate too quickly.
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Nearly everyone's been faced with this decision at some point in their lives: Take the elevator or walk up the dreaded stairs? If you have a racing heart rate while climbing stairs and find yourself huffing and puffing afterward, you may simply be out of shape. Here's what you should know.

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Read more:What's Causing Your Elevated Heart Rate?

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All About Heart Rates

Your resting heart rate is how many times your heart beats in one minute while your body is at rest, says the American Heart Association (AHA). A normal resting heart rate typically falls between 60 and 100 beats a minute — and the lower in that range, the better — the AHA adds.

Whenever you engage in any kind of physical activity, your heart gets right to work. Walking up a flight of stairs is no exception, says Marc Eisenberg, MD, a cardiologist and associate professor of medicine at Columbia University Irving Medical Center, New York City.

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"When one walks up stairs, one needs to get more blood pumping from the heart to all the muscles in the body needed for walking," Dr. Eisenberg explains. "Therefore, the heart rate increases to help to increase the amount of blood to the body."

Two important numbers to know when you exert yourself are maximum heart rate and target heart rate. Maximum heart rate (measured in beats per minute) is age-based and can be calculated by subtracting your age from 220, according to the AHA. Target heart rate — which helps you know whether you're working too hard or not enough during any kind of physical activity — typically falls between 50 and 85 percent of your maximum heart rate, the AHA adds.

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"People who are in good shape, also known as well-conditioned, tend to have a lower resting heart rate as well as a slower rising heart rate during exertion," says Dr. Eisenberg. "In contrast, people who are out of shape tend to have higher resting heart rates, and their heart rates rise very quickly during the first minute of exertion."

Read more:My Heart Rate Rises With Light Activity

Improving Heart Health

If you're worried about your heart rate when climbing stairs, it's important to know that your heart health — including your resting heart rate — can be improved over time with regular exercise. According to the AHA, physical activity confers heart-health benefits, including a lower resting heart rate and decreased blood pressure.

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The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) lays out healthy levels of physical activity for adults in its second edition of "Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans." For adults, those recommendations include:

  • Try to get in at least 150 to 300 minutes of aerobic exercise a week at a moderate intensity, or 75 to 150 minutes of aerobic exercise a week at a vigorous intensity (or an equivalent combination of both).
  • At moderate or greater intensity, try to engage in exercises that strengthen the muscles and include all major muscle groups at least two days a week.

Common types of aerobic exercises include walking, jogging, using an elliptical or stepper, swimming, cycling and aerobic dance, the Cleveland Clinic says. The HHS names activities like weight lifting, using elastic bands or doing body weight activities like push-ups as beneficial muscle-strengthening exercises.

Before trying any of these exercises, though, be sure to talk with your doctor about an exercise plan that's right for you — and look out for signs that something might be off with your health. "If someone has symptoms of shortness of breath, dizziness, chest pain or feels like they are about to black out while exerting themselves, they should see a doctor or go to an emergency room," Dr. Eisenberg advises.

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