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6 things that happen to your body when you take the stairs

Someone walking up stairs

By skipping elevators and escalators, you can become stronger and healthier without taking any extra time out of your day.

Emily Shiffer

By Emily Shiffer

It’s no secret that most of us live a sedentary lifestyle. Time spent commuting, sitting at a desk for school or work, and using computers and other screened devices can make it hard to find moments when activity naturally fits in.

In fact, about 80% of American adults and adolescents don’t engage in the recommended amount of physical activity, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). And this can have serious impacts on health. A 2019 study by researchers at the Columbia University Irving Medical Center found that the more time people spend sitting while watching TV, the greater the risk of heart disease and death.

Your task? Try to squeeze as much movement into your day as possible. Every bit counts. Even if you can’t meet the HHS’ goal of at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity per week, just sitting less and moving more can give you great health gains.

One of the best bang-for-your-buck activities is taking the stairs. It’s an aerobic workout and strengthens your muscles and bones.

Don’t just take our word for it. Here, experts explain what can happen to your body when you skip the elevators and escalators — and how it may protect your long-term health.

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1. You breathe easier

Your muscles need oxygen to make energy. So when you take the stairs, your heart and lungs work together to increase your body’s supply, says Carol Yuan-Duclair, MD. She’s a board-certified physician and the founder of B. Hai Sleep Health in Whitehouse Station, New Jersey.

To take in more oxygen, your breathing becomes quicker and deeper, explains Dr. Yuan-Duclair. And your heart pumps faster to push oxygenated, nutrient-rich blood throughout the body.

The more active you are, the better your body gets at this whole process. “Frequent exercise helps the muscles extract oxygen more efficiently,” says MeiLan K. Han, MD. She’s a professor of medicine in the Division of Pulmonary and Critical Care at the University of Michigan and a spokesperson for the American Lung Association.

She adds, “Aerobic exercise can help make the muscles that encase the chest wall stronger, making it easier to breathe.”

2. You build lean muscle mass

Walking up the stairs (or really any incline) is definitely a cardio workout. But did you know that it’s also considered strength training?

“When you step onto a stair, you’re transferring your body weight on an incline and propelling that weight up and toward the next step,” says Evan Williams. He’s a certified personal trainer in Chicago and CEO of E2G Performance. “This activates muscles from your foot all the way up to your glutes, which in turn helps with muscle development and function.”

Why is that important? Well, increased muscle mass burns more calories (even when you’re not exercising). It’s also important for regulating blood sugar, which can reduce your risk of diabetes. Taking the stairs regularly can help you maintain this all-important muscle mass, which we naturally lose as we age, says Dr. Yuan-Duclair.

3. You feel more energized

Do you get a midafternoon energy slump? Instead of reaching for another cup of Joe, try a hit of activity to perk you up. “Short bouts of stair climbing have been shown to increase feelings of energy and mood,” says Williams.

A study published in Frontiers in Psychology found that 3 sets of stair climbs, each one lasting just 1 minute, was enough to help folks feel more energetic, less tense and less tired. That’s not surprising because exercise can release feel-good brain chemicals and help take your mind off worries. Those are 2 pluses for easing symptoms of depression and anxiety, according to the Mayo Clinic.

4. You prepare yourself for better sleep

Getting enough shut-eye doesn’t just impact your next day’s to-do list. It can also help you get sick less often, reduce stress and stay at a healthy weight. “Good sleep is crucial to our well-being,” says Dr. Yuan-Duclair.

Studies show that regular physical activity can promote better-quality and more consolidated sleep. If taking the stairs could mean less tossing and turning, we’re definitely on board.

(Related reading: What you need to know about sleep apnea.)

5. You strengthen your bones

Muscles are attached to bones. So any time you work your muscles, your bones “go through a process where they are remodeled to be stronger and more resilient to the loads placed on them,” says Williams. “Weight-bearing aerobic exercises such as using the stairs help with improving bone mass.”

Even people with osteoporosis (a disease that thins and weakens bones) improved their bone density with stair climbing. This is according to a 2018 review in BioMed Research International.

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6. You lower your blood pressure

Remember how your heart gets more efficient at pumping blood and nutrients each time you exercise? That can have big benefits for your blood vessels, too.

A 2018 study published in the journal Menopause split post-menopausal women with high blood pressure into 2 groups. One group climbed stairs 4 days per week, and the other did no physical activity.

The climbing group marched up 192 steps 2 to 5 times a day. After 12 weeks, the climbing group had significant drops in blood pressure and blood vessel stiffness compared to the non-exercise group.

Related reading: Why are there so many types of blood pressure medication?

Other simple ways to move more during the day

Taking the stairs is a stellar way to boost your health — and get where you’re going. But it’s not always doable. Maybe you work from home or have limited access to steps.

Don’t worry. There are plenty of ways to make moving easier and more fun. Take a moment to map out your day. Where can you sneak in a few minutes here and there?

Here are some extra ideas to get your brainstorm started.

  • Park farther from your destination.
  • Get up from your desk at lunch.
  • Speak with co-workers face-to-face, rather than sending emails.
  • Schedule walking meetings.
  • Dance during commercial breaks.
  • Start an outdoor garden.
  • Do countertop pushups while your coffee is brewing.
  • Hold a squat while you brush your teeth.
  • Try a standing desk at work (they do burn more calories than sitting).

No matter how you move, know that you’re giving yourself a great gift each time you do. And remember: Every step counts.

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Additional sources
Physical activity guidelines for Americans: U.S. Department of Health & Human Services
Columbia University study on sitting and heart disease risk: Journal of the American Heart Association (2019). “Types of Sedentary Behavior and Risk of Cardiovascular Events and Mortality in Blacks: The Jackson Heart Study”
Trial on stair climbing and energy levels: Frontiers in Psychology (2019). “Effects of a Brief Stair-Climbing Intervention on Cognitive Performance and Mood States in Healthy Young Adults”
How physical activity impacts sleep quality: Circulation Research (2019). “Sedentary Behavior, Exercise, and Cardiovascular Health”
Stair climbing and its impact on bone density: BioMed Research International (2018). “The Effectiveness of Physical Exercise on Bone Density in Osteoporotic Patients”
Stair climbing and its impact on blood pressure: Menopause (2018). “The effects of stair climbing on arterial stiffness, blood pressure, and leg strength in postmenopausal women with stage 2 hypertension”