Until recently, fitness gurus have advised people to “take the stairs” mainly as a substitute for do-nothing elevator rides.

Now: Stair-climbing is becoming increasingly popular as a workout that’s readily accessible (stairs are everywhere)…often climate-controlled (indoor stairs)…and free.

It burns more calories than walking…strengthens every muscle in the legs…and is good for your bones as well as your cardiovascular system. It may even extend your life span.

Compelling research: A study found that participants who averaged eight flights of stairs a day had a death rate over a 16-year period that was about one-third lower than those who didn’t exercise—and more than 20% lower than that of people who merely walked.

A CONCENTRATED CLIMB

Walking is mainly a horizontal movement, with an assist from forward momentum. Stair-climbing is a vertical exercise. Your body weight is lifted straight up, against gravity. Climbing stairs also involves more muscles—in the calves, buttocks and the fronts and backs of the thighs—than walking. Even the arms get a workout. Canadian researchers found that it required double the exertion of walking on level ground—and 50% more than walking up an incline.

As a weight-loss tool, stair-climbing is hard to beat. An hour of climbing (for a 160-pound person) will burn about 650 calories. That compares with 400 calories an hour for a 15-minute-mile “power walk”…and 204 calories for a leisurely stroll.

IT’S EASY TO START

Inconvenience is one of the biggest barriers to exercise. It sometimes feels like a hassle to change into workout clothes and drive to a health club…or even exercise at home. But you can always find a set of stairs—in your neighborhood, at work, at the mall or at home.

You don’t need fancy workout gear to climb stairs (uncarpeted stairs are preferred). Because it doesn’t involve side-to-side movements, you don’t necessarily need to invest in specialized shoes. You can do it in any pair of athletic shoes or even work shoes, as long as they don’t have high heels.

HOW TO CLIMB

When getting started, begin with a single flight of stairs. When that feels easy, take additional flights or increase the intensity by going a little faster. Work up to five minutes, then slowly increase that to 10, 15 and 20 minutes, if possible, three times a week. Other tips…

  • Keep your upper body straight. There’s a natural tendency to lean forward when you climb stairs, particularly because a forward-leaning position feels easier. Remind yourself to stand straight when you’re climbing and descending. It will give your legs a better workout…strengthen your abdominal and other core muscles…and help improve your balance.
  • Swing your arms. You don’t need an exaggerated swing, but keep your arms moving—it helps with balance and provides exercise for your arms and shoulders. You’ll often see stair-climbers with their hands or arms on the rails. It’s OK to use the rails if you need the support, but it reduces the intensity of the exercise. It also causes the stooped posture that you want to avoid.
  • One step at a time. Unless you’re a competitive stair-climber, you’ll probably do best by taking just one step at a time. Ascending stairs is a concentric exercise that increases muscle power…it’s also the part of the workout that gives most of the cardiovascular benefit.Coming down the stairs is an eccentric (also called “negative”) movement that puts more stress on the muscles and increases strength. Important: Descend the stairs slowly, and keep “jolts” to a minimum. It sounds counterintuitive, but the descents cause more muscle soreness than the climbs.

    You can take two steps at a time on the ascent—if your balance is good and you’re bored with single-step plodding. The faster pace will increase the intensity of your workout, particularly when you give your arms a more exaggerated swing. To minimize jolts and maximize safety, however, stick to single steps on the descent.

TO END YOUR WORKOUT

The “Figure 4” stretch is a great way to conclude a stair-climbing workout. It stretches the calves, hamstrings, gluteals, low back and upper back. What to do: While sitting on the floor with your right leg straight, bend your left leg so that your left foot touches your right thigh. Slowly reach your right hand toward your right foot. Then grasp your foot, ankle or lower leg, and hold for 20 seconds. Repeat on the other side.

Caution: Stair-climbing should be avoided if you have serious arthritis or other joint problems. It’s less jarring than jogging, but it’s still a weight-bearing exercise that can stress the joints. People with joint issues might do better with supported exercises, such as cycling, rowing or swimming.

Before taking up stair-climbing as a form of exercise, check with your doctor if you’re middle-aged or older, have arthritis, a history of heart or lung disease or if you’ve been mainly sedentary and aren’t confident of your muscle strength—or your sense of balance.

Stair-Stepping Without a Staircase

If you want to climb stairs without using a staircase, consider buying a commercial “stepper,” such as those from StairMaster. Some have components that work the arms as well as the legs. Stair-steppers, however, don’t provide the benefit of actual stair-climbing, which uses more muscles because of the descents. These machines can be costly (at least $2,500 for a new one but much less for a used one on Craigslist or eBay). They typically hold up for years of hard use.

Caution: I don’t recommend “mini-steppers” that sell for as little as $60. They have hydraulics, bands or other systems that cause the steps to go up and down, but the equipment usually breaks quickly.