Step Up

Here’s an exercise that can boost your heart, brain and muscles. And all you need is a set of stairs

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

Here’s more proof you don’t need an expensive gym membership to get fit. It turns out that the perfect tool for total body and mind health was staring us in the face the whole time. Climbing the stairs is one of the simplest and most effective ways to give your heart, brain and muscles a boost – and is convenient thanks to Singapore’s thousands of high-rise buildings.


Stair climbing burns eight to 11 calories (33 to 46 kJ) per minute and adding in two flights daily can lead to 2.72 kg of weight loss over a year, according to a US study. And no wonder – it’s twice as taxing as a brisk walk, according to Harvard research, and 50 per cent more challenging than walking up a steep incline.

“Stair climbing is a great calorie burner. It’s a combination of cardio and strength training that will tone and build stamina,” says personal trainer Becks Boston. “Add ankle weights to increase the effort and hold a pair of light dumbbells for extra resistance. This will improve your core stability which will tone your stomach muscles and help your posture.”


Researchers from Canada revealed that stair climbing increases cardiovascular fitness. While previous studies have found similar results based on prolonged stair climbing, this research found that short, sharp bursts could yield similar results. Participants climbed vigorously up and down one flight for 60 seconds, totalling 30 minutes a week – an exercise that’s easy to replicate at home or work. This heart health benefit could be why stair climbing has been linked with living a longer life.

The Harvard Alumni Study found that men who climb eight flights of stairs a day on average have a 33 per cent lower mortality rate than men who are inactive – even higher than those who walk around two kilometres every day. While step aerobics used to be all the rage, it’s less common to find classes at the gym now. Luckily, YouTube has stepped in – you’ll find lots of step sessions to get your heart pumping.


Going through menopause can cause a reduction in your muscle strength as oestrogen levels decrease. But researchers from the North American Menopause Society discovered that stair climbing is excellent for building leg strength – especially in postmenopausal women. The same research also showed it can lower blood pressure and reduce your risk of osteoporosis. Participants trained for four days a week, climbing 192 steps between two and five times each day.


When flagging, you might be tempted to reach for a caffeinated drink, but there’s a simple, natural alternative. Yes, you guessed it – going up and down the stairs! Just 10 minutes of this was found to make people feel more energised than drinking 50 milligrams of coffee, according to an American study. The remedy is now being recommended for sluggish office workers.


While getting your steps in is obviously good for your body, there’s evidence it’s also great for your grey matter. In fact, the more stairs you climb, the younger your brain appears to get, according to a Canadian study. Researchers found that people’s brain age decreased by 0.58 years for every daily flight of stairs they climbed. This was discovered after measuring their grey matter through MRI scanners.

It’s not all about going up. Walking back down the stairs has its own set of unique benefits. It’s a form of eccentric exercise, which means placing a load on a muscle when it’s lengthening, rather than shortening (as happens on the way up). Going downstairs was found to reduce the risk of diabetes in a group of obese women in an Australian study, lowering their resting levels of insulin and glucose.