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April 2, 2013 > Climbing to Health

Climbing to Health

By Andrea Glassberg, MD, PhD

If I told you that I had a favorite method to enhance my overall health throughout the day, would you give it a try?

It won't cost you a cent. All you need are some sturdy shoes and a couple of extra minutes to spare (And your physician's OK).

My not-so-secret routine? Stair climbing.

It began as a way to beat the crowds at elevators.

But the more I took the stairs, the more I realized that there were numerous health benefits - and that I could share them with my patients who were either new to exercise, or who wanted to layer on an added cardio workout.

Like me, you can fit in stair climbing at the office, hotels or airports when you travel, or in public places ranging from parks and museums to department stores.

There's no monthly fee. No special exercise equipment is required. You can go up and down hundreds of steps - or just a few. It can be a solitary activity, or a means to socialize with friends and colleagues (Just be sure to do it safely, using handrails, not rushing, and avoiding any distractions).

Beyond the cardio workout and prevention of heart ailments, there are other benefits of stair climbing. Not surprisingly, first on the list is weight reduction. With more than two-thirds of American adults overweight or obese, it's clear that we need to start making time for our health - and stair climbing is a step in the right direction.

A 155-pound person burns 281 calories in 30 minutes of climbing stairs. While that may not seem like a lot of calories, it's the same number you would burn if running 5 miles per hour, and even more than if you were walking on a flat surface (And think of the calories burned if you climbed daily!).

In addition, stair climbing is a great activity for blood circulation, as well as for building strength in and toning your gluteal muscles, hamstrings, quadriceps, and calves. Strengthening these muscles can reduce your risk of injuries and promote increased bone density.

Finally, stair climbing can be good for stress reduction. On the job these days, it's hard to get away from distractions like email, smart phones, and instant messaging.

Climbing stairs is a way to unplug and reclaim a little time for yourself in your day.

The lift you might feel in your mood and thinking is actually a benefit of increased amounts of the hormones adrenaline and noradrenaline that climbing release.

My patients are sometimes surprised at how challenging stair climbing can be - at first.

That's because climbers use specific, under-used leg muscles, while their lungs are hard at work, too.

As a result, I recommend starting out with just a flight or two at a relaxed pace. Add a flight every week or so, and increase your pace when you're able. Stair climbing is like other exercise activities in that you'll be motivated to do more if you set a firm goal.

If you find it too dull or onerous, listen to some music.

As for me, I like the quiet when stair climbing - the better to hear my strong footsteps, beating heart, and healthy breathing.

Andrea Glassberg, MD, PhD is a Pulmonary and Critical Care physician at Kaiser Permanente East Bay

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