Do the benefits of climbing stairs for 20 minutes outweigh the benefits of walking on easier terrain? The answer depends on your goals. Although climbing stairs challenges your body more and burns more calories, simple walking has some other advantages.
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If you're looking for a way to amp up your exercise intensity or caloric burn, going from walking to stair climbing will do it. But regular walking is still great exercise, and in some cases, its gentler nature also makes it a better choice.
For Losing Weight
If your goal is losing weight, stair climbing burns significantly more calories than walking. According to the American Council on Exercise (ACE) physical activity calorie counter, if you weigh 160 pounds and spend an hour climbing stairs, you'll burn an impressive 580 calories.
If you weigh more, you usually burn more calories. For example, if you weigh 200 pounds, you're looking at 725 calories burned in that same hour of stair climbing. ACE estimates that in order to match those numbers, you'd have to jog at 5 mph — well beyond most peoples' walking speed.
But that doesn't mean that walking on flat ground, or at a more relaxed pace, isn't helpful for weight loss. In fact, Harvard Health Publishing notes that walking briskly for about an hour a day can counteract the effects of obesity-promoting genes. And according to the ACE physical activity calculator, a 160-pound person walking at a brisk 3.5-mph pace for one hour burns about 275 calories.
That number might not seem impressive when up against the numbers for stair climbing, but one of the biggest perks of walking is that it's easy to get into and easy to keep up over time — which gives you a chance for those numbers to really add up.
The most important rule for getting active, whether you're considering stair climbing vs. walking or other types of exercise, is to find a type of exercise that you like enough to make it a regular, ongoing part of your life, as opposed to a one-time impressive workout that you never want to repeat. As noted by the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, the best type of physical activity is the one you'll keep doing.
Disadvantages of Climbing Stairs
Walking up and down stairs for exercise is more intense in every aspect than walking on flat ground. So if you're looking for a very intense workout in a short amount of time, head for the stairs. But climbing all those stairs does come with a few particular disadvantages.
Many of the studies on knee forces while stair climbing deal with patients who've undergone knee replacements or have specific orthopedic problems. But two of the more widely applicable studies highlight that climbing stairs magnifies the forces on your knee for healthy individuals, too.
As noted in the August 2002 issue of Gait and Posture following a study of 35 healthy individuals_,_ and in the May 2004 issue of the Journal of Orthopaedic Research using a previously validated musculoskeletal lower limb model_,_ climbing stairs sends significantly greater forces through your knees than walking on flat ground. Stairs also increase the force on your hip somewhat, so if you have knee or hip problems, stairs might not be the ideal workout for you.
Stair climbing can also be a poor choice for someone that's just starting out, because doing too much, too soon is a good way to end up hurt or discouraged. In that case, start with a gentle walk. As your body gets stronger, you'll be able to progress to doing the stairs — if you so desire.
Another problem: Not all staircases are created equal, and too-steep, slippery or unstable stairs can pose real safety hazards.
And finally, just because you can do intense physical activity doesn't mean you always must. As Harvard Health Publishing explains, the simple act of walking packs some serious benefits, from taming your sweet tooth to boosting immune function and reducing your risk of breast cancer.
Walking is also a great way to decompress after a long day, and as noted in the June 2018 issue of the British Journal of Sports Medicine, there's a growing body of evidence to reflect that walking can be beneficial to mental health.
Read more: How to Start Walking for Exercise
- Gait and Posture: "Knee and Hip Kinetics During Normal Stair Climbing"
- Journal of Orthopaedic Research: "Tibio-Femoral Loading During Human Gait and Stair Climbing"
- American Council on Exercise: "Physical Activity Calorie Counter"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "5 Surprising Benefits of Walking"
- British Journal of Sports Medicine: "Walking on Sunshine: Scoping Review of the Evidence for Walking and Mental Health"
- Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion: "5 Factors That Help People Stick to a New Exercise Habit"