Big Pedometer trained us to dutifully chase 10,000 steps a day.
But as I’ve previously explored, a range of 5,000-8,000 steps per day is perfectly healthy for longevity-minded living. And besides, that conventional wisdom ignores the fact that all steps are not created equal. Some strides are faster or harder than others, and they deserve credit for the benefits they bring to the body.
A day’s most difficult steps usually occur on the stairs. Climbing up any significant number of steps tends to invite its fair share of epithets — I’ve been known to curse like a pirate when trudging to the fourth floor of my apartment building — but the momentary exhaustion is a fair trade for a more energetic life.
It’s a mundane activity, but that doesn’t negate the fact that walking up flights of stairs strengthens the muscles in your legs, improves mobility and balance, burns more calories than walking on a flat surface, and supercharges your cardiovascular fitness.
The 3×3 Rule
How many flights should you prioritize? I recommend hunting down at least three flights of stairs three times per day.
I didn’t pull that number out of thin air. It’s based on a study published in Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism, which assigned a bunch of sedentary young adults to a mandatory stair climbing schedule: “three bouts/day of vigorously ascending a three-flight stairwell (60 steps), separated by one to four hours of recovery, three days/week for six weeks.”
The researchers also studied a non-climbing group, and the results were conclusive: “Peak oxygen uptake was higher in the climbers after the intervention, suggesting that stair climbing ‘snacks’ are effective in improving cardiorespiratory fitness.”
How to Walk More Stairs
That study had its volunteers climbing nine flights a day (as a refresher, a flight is set of steps that takes you from one level to another — a landing or a new floor — without interruption).
It’s actually not that many, assuming there aren’t elevators or escalators everywhere you go. If you live in a city with a metro, you might even be surprised by how many flights you encounter throughout your commute. (Check out the Flights Climbed section of your phone’s Health app to monitor this!)
Still, even if you can’t make it all the way to nine, as little as three flights of stairs climbed each day should have a tangible impact on your health. Another enterprising study discovered that stair-climbing is positively linked to brain age: “Education and the daily number of flights of stairs climbed (FOSC) were the only 2 significant predictors of decreased BA. Effect sizes demonstrated that BA decreased by 0.95 years for each year of education and by 0.58 years for 1 additional FOSC daily.”
For the sake of both body and brain, embrace the flights of stairs you find. Walking up them is never fun or easy, but they offer the finest — and healthiest — flavor of steps around.
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