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The question

Does taking the stairs instead of the elevator actually make any difference to my fitness?

The answer

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If you're heading to the top of the CN Tower, taking the stairs definitely makes a difference.

More than 7,000 people will be tackling the 1,776 steps to the top today and Saturday, as part of the 20th annual fundraiser for the World Wildlife Federation. Another thousand will take on the 802-step Calgary Tower on behalf of the Alberta Wilderness Association on Saturday - and they'll all burn a few hundred calories, even if they walk the whole way.

But you don't have to work in a skyscraper to get the benefits of a stair workout. Researchers in Ireland have been studying the benefits of dashing up the stairs periodically over the course of a workday, and they've observed surprising fitness gains.

"I think the key thing here," says Colin Boreham, a professor at the University College Dublin Institute for Sport and Health, "is that stair-climbing is one of the few everyday activities at a moderate to high intensity that one can do surreptitiously without having to change, use special equipment or look foolish."



Charity stair-climbs are an emerging phenomenon: The website Towerrunning.com (motto: "Take the stairs and not the elevator") lists well over 100 events around the world, and Italian scientists have analyzed the physics and physiology in a study of "skyscraper running" to be published later this year in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports.

Among the notable insights of the Italian study is that using the handrails to haul yourself up turns the activity into a full-body workout much like rowing, resulting in a "global, maximal effort." About 80 per cent of the power you exert goes to raising your body against the force of gravity; 5 per cent goes to whipping your limbs back and forth, and the remaining 15 per cent goes toward running tiny semi-circles at each landing.

Because of its high intensity, stair climbing offers a time-efficient workout - the record for climbing up the CN Tower is just 7:52. However, Dr. Boreham and his colleagues have found that a much more moderate approach can also pay dividends.

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They asked eight undergraduate women to undertake an eight-week program that started with climbing a 199-step staircase twice a day, five days a week. They climbed at a moderate rate of 90 steps a minute, so that it took about two minutes to reach the top. By the end of the program, they were climbing five times a day - not all at once, but scattered through the day - for a daily total of just over 10 minutes of exercise a day.

Compared to a group of matched controls, the stair-climbers increased their aerobic fitness by 17 per cent and reduced harmful LDL cholesterol by 8 per cent, results that compare favourably to taking a half-hour daily walk. The researchers are now investigating whether the protocol can be transferred to older adults, using a stepping machine rather than staircases.

"Because it's at such a high intensity, it accomplishes health adaptations in a shorter period," Dr. Boreham says, "which is handy if you like your exercise in short bites."

Standard exercise guidelines suggest that bouts of exercise should last at least 10 minutes in order to produce meaningful gains, although recent research into "high-intensity interval training" supports the idea that you can get by with short bursts - totalling as little as seven minutes a week - if they're intense enough.

The gains in Dr. Boreham's study are modest enough that you shouldn't view taking the stairs as the only thing needed to stay fit. But they offer encouraging evidence that simple decisions to be more active in your daily life can add up to measurable health benefits - even if you can't climb the CN Tower.

Alex Hutchinson blogs about research on exercise at sweatscience.com .

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