Time is no longer an excuse for not exercising, as new research finds that even a few minutes of stair climbing at intervals every day is enough to improve cardiovascular and overall health.
woman exercising on stairs
New research finds that even brief bouts of stair climbing can bring unexpected health benefits.

Several recent studies have pointed out the many health benefits of short bursts of exercise.

For instance, a review of existing studies, which Medical News Today reported on, shows that an acute period of exercise can immediately protect the heart against future ischemic episodes.

Results of another recent study indicate that 10 minutes of physical activity is enough to give the brain a boost, improving attention, working memory, and cognitive flexibility, among other mental skills.

Now, research suggests that even intervals of stair climbing that last a few minutes, with recovery periods between, can improve cardiorespiratory health.

Martin Gibala, Ph.D., a professor of kinesiology at McMaster University in Hamilton, Canada, is the senior author of the new study, which appears in the journal Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism.

How to get an effective workout

Prof. Gibala and the team set out to investigate whether sprint interval training — that is, short bouts of intense exercise separated by a few minutes of recovery, amounting to about 10 minutes in total — can improve cardiorespiratory fitness.

Cardiorespiratory fitness refers to “the ability of the heart, lungs, and vascular system to deliver oxygen-rich blood to working muscles” during intense physical exercise.

Research has suggested that greater respiratory fitness brings several health benefits, including better cardiovascular health, improved insulin resistance, and a lower risk of premature death.

For the current study, a group of 12 sedentary young participants climbed three flights of stairs three times a day, with 1–4 hours of recovery between sessions.

The participants engaged in this regimen three times a week for 6 weeks, while a control group of 12 age-matched, sedentary individuals did not exercise.

At the end of the intervention period, cardiorespiratory fitness “was higher in the climbers […] suggesting that stair-climbing ‘snacks’ are effective in improving cardiorespiratory fitness,” report the authors.

The climbers were also stronger at the end of the intervention, and they performed better in a maximal cycling test, compared to the controls.

“We know that sprint interval training works, but we were a bit surprised to see that the stair snacking approach was also effective,” says study co-author Jonathan Little, Ph.D., an assistant professor of kinesiology at the University of British Columbia in Okanagan, Canada.

“Vigorously climbing a few flights of stairs on your coffee or bathroom break during the day seems to be enough to boost fitness in people who are otherwise sedentary,” Little explains.

“The findings make it even easier for people to incorporate ‘exercise snacks’ into their day,” Prof. Gibala adds.

Those who work in office towers or live in apartment buildings can vigorously climb a few flights of stairs in the morning, at lunch, and in the evening and know they are getting an effective workout.”

Prof. Martin Gibala, Ph.D.

In the future, the team plans to test the effects of various exercise “snacking” regimens, varying the duration of the recovery intervals. They also wish to study the effects of these bouts of exercise on blood pressure and blood sugar.