“Stair climbing for weight loss”, “Stair climbing builds strong legs”, “Climb stairs to climb the fitness ladder”, “Stair climbing can be done anywhere and anytime”, “Why do you need a gym membership? Just run up and down the steps in your building!”……
All true!!! But…..
Let’s talk about the benefits first: Walking is THE MOST natural activity for the human body, and an excellent cardio-vascular exercise. But walking burns a small amount of calories, and to burn enough calories for weight loss by walking alone, you need to have a lot of time on your hands! Now if you walk UP THE STAIRS though, you can triple the amount of calories you burn, effectively cutting the amount of time you need to spend by 1/3rd!! Walking upwards will also require more work from your heart, and will bring you into the “Target heart rate zone” you need to be in for best benefits of exercise.
Walking up-stairs needs a lot of work from the Quadriceps (Front of thigh) muscle, the Gluteal (hip) muscles and the calf muscles. Obviously, climbing often will make these stronger building stronger legs. The single leg balance required to propel the body upwards, and the work of the trunk muscles to centre the body, also means a good “Core” workout. Besides this, the rhythm, repetitions, co-ordination and proprioceptive conditioning makes stair climbing a good all rounded functional training tool.
Unfortunately, there are some disadvantages!!
Stair Climbing (and descending) can destroy your knee!!!: The pull that the large and strong quadriceps muscle exerts on the front of the knee is completely centred on the tiny knee cap through the “Quadriceps tendon”. This strong force grinds the knee cap on the bone lying directly behind it (the “femoral condyles”) repeatedly, slowly eroding the soft protective cartilage covering. While Climbing DOWNSTAIRS, the work of the hip muscles reduces, and the whole act of descending is dependent on the slow release of a very strong Quadriceps contraction, leading to even stronger grinding forces behind the knee cap!! Further, the act of lifting your body weight upwards, also loads the main knee joint (Tibio-Femoral) 3-4 times more than while walking on a flat surface. If you are overweight and your knees are already groaning, this repeated action can be the last straw!!!
In fact, if you have a foot or ankle problem, a hip problem, or even back pain, stair climbing is not for you!! If you have a “Back problem”, or if because of knee pain your posture while climbing up is not perfect, you may develop back pain from stair climbing! Climbing up requires the muscles of the hip to work well. Tight or weak gluteal muscles will cause excessive movement in the lumbar spine and strain the Sacro-illiac joints. Also a forward bent posture to assist weak Quadriceps will cause low back pain and increase discomfort coming from “Sciatica”.
When we advocate an exercise for efficacy or convenience, we also have to evaluate it for safety. An exercise that can potentially cause damage or increase disability cannot be used as a means towards “fitness”. Any advice towards weight loss or fitness, should promote health. “Convenience” and “Cost” should be evaluated and projected for the long run. Conservation of tissues and joints is an important part of health and fitness, and should never be ignored. “One exercise fits all” concept is dangerous and delusionary!!
To conclude, if you are fit and healthy, have no lower body pain, do take the stairs often to keep fit; If you are a sportsman and extremely fit, do use stair climbing as a part of your fitness routine; If you are trying to lose weight and are a healthy, YOUNG individual, do use stair climbing SOMETIMES to replace your other exercise routines or to bring in variety. In fact, if you are fit, try taking two steps at a time instead of one: a longer stride will mean more work from both the hips, better “push-off” from the leg behind, and less load on the forward knee, making the same exercise more challenging, less injurious and ensuring better strength, balance and functional gains!
But if you are on the other side of thirty, overweight, unfit, and have various aches and pains, please DO NOT use stair climbing as a part of your exercise routine!