Small Stair Climbing Bouts Throughout The Day Improve Cardiovascular Fitness

Exercise for better brain health

What if I told you that something as simple as climbing three flights of stairs three times a day could have a meaningful effect on your cardiovascular fitness and power?  That instead of having to change your clothes and commit a half hour to an hour to working out that a simple “exercise snack” you can easily squeeze into your day could help you function better and be healthier.  Thanks to a recent study we now have some evidence that such simple actions do make a difference.

A study by Jenkins et al. (2019) looked at the effect of having adults perform very small bouts of exercise throughout the day.  The key to the study was to look at an activity and approach towards it that resembled what someone could do in their normal workday, not subjects showing up to a laboratory or a gym. 

The authors had otherwise sedentary subjects vigorously climb three flights of stairs (60 steps), three times a day with anywhere from 1-4 hours between bouts.  This was done only 3 days a week for 6 weeks.  A control group did not perform the stair climbing assignment.

After 6 weeks the participants climbing the stairs saw a statistically significant improvement in their cardiorespiratory fitness (VO2peak).  The change was not gigantic, about 5%, but that is a meaningful difference and an excellent improvement in only 6 weeks just climbing a few stairs three times a week.  While not everyone works in a building where they can drink a lot of water and run up three flights of a stairs to go to the bathroom a few times a day many people do.  And for those who do not, it wouldn’t be an unfair assumption to make that a similar non-stair-based activity could have a similar effect.

Not only did the subjects see an improvement in their cardiorespiratory fitness, they also saw a meaningful 12% change in their peak power output (Wpeak).  This is a measure of the power their legs can generate. 

Certainly, if someone wants to achieve greater improvements in cardiovascular fitness, they can follow a plan that is more “exercise” focused and doesn’t leave hours in between bouts of activity.  Short duration rest periods between vigorous bouts or a longer sustained heart rate will produce larger impacts.  For those who are not ready to follow a more traditional plan this research demonstrates there are still real benefits that are achievable with small interventions.  The idea of exercise snacks is much more realistic for a certain segment of our population and any improvement, including 5%, is a meaningful change for the better. 

Jenkins, E., Nairn, L., Skelly, L., Little, J. and Gibala, M. (2019) Do Stair Climbing Exercise “Snacks” Improve Cardiorespiratory Fitness. Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism. DOI: 10.1139/apnm-2018-0675

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