Climbing stairs requires more muscular effort than walking on level ground or walking at a slight incline. The steep incline presented by stairs forces your heart to work harder to pump more blood and oxygen to the active muscles of your lower body. How high your heart rate climbs on stairs depends on your level of fitness and the pace you keep up, but you can experience significant health benefits from stair climbing over time.
Heart Rate on Stairs
You can't predict exactly how high your heart rate will climb on the stairs, but you can bet that it will be higher than it would be on a treadmill. On flat ground, only about 20 percent of the muscle tissues in your legs are activated. Increasing the incline to 15 percent sharply increases the muscle tissue activation to 75 percent. Walking 3 miles per hour at a 12-percent incline is equivalent to running twice that speed on a flat surface. A stairwell represents a sharp incline, and the sharper the incline, the sharper the increase in heart rate during exercise.
Working at an incline can quickly push you from a light aerobic heart rate to a higher anaerobic rate, where your body breaks down glycogen stores for immediate energy rather than relying solely on oxygen. Walking or running at a sharp incline forces your body to use two or three times the muscle fibers as exercising on a flat surface. More muscle activation requires a higher heart rate to provide the working muscles with the oxygen they need. Because of this, you can't keep up a stair-climbing workout as long as a traditional aerobic exercise like jogging.
Target Heart Rate
Although you're not in control of your heart rate during exercise, you can control your level of exertion. Working in a safe target heart rate zone on the stairs can help you get a good workout and avoid overtraining. For a moderate-intensity workout, you should train between 50 and 70 percent of your maximum heart rate. You can estimate your maximum heart rate by subtracting your age from 220. You can push yourself up to 85 percent of your maximum heart rate during an intense workout, but going beyond that range could put too much strain on your heart.
Over time, your cardiovascular system will adapt to the rigors of a stair-climbing routine, improving stroke volume and oxygen output and increasing overall efficiency. A 2000 study conducted by British researchers and published in "Preventative Medicine" found that sedentary women who walked up 199 steps at a comfortable pace experienced a sharp heart-rate increase of up to 90 percent of their maximum heart rate. By the end of a seven-week stair-climbing program, the women had significant reductions in heart rate, cholesterol and blood lactate levels.
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