It’s a phrase that’s become almost cliché: take the stairs instead of the elevator.

Why? To improve the health of your heart, of course.

Now, there’s another reason.

A new study suggests that how fast you climb stairs can reveal the current state of your heart health and whether or not you’re in danger of coronary artery disease. Let’s take a look…

The study, performed at the University Hospital A, in Coruña, Spain, found that the time it takes someone to climb four flights of stairs can reveal their overall heart health.1

The study included 165 symptomatic patients with suspected coronary artery disease who each walked or ran on a treadmill until exhaustion. Their exercise capacity was measured as metabolic equivalents (MET). After the exercise, researchers gave the group a 15 to 20 minute rest period.

Next, researchers asked the group to climb four flights of stairs, which was the equivalent of 60 steps, at a fast, but non-running pace. Then, they measured their METs again.

The Magic Number is Ten

People who climbed the stairs in less than 40 to 45 seconds achieved more than nine to ten METs. Study authors say reaching ten METs during exercise was linked to low mortality rates (less than one percent per year).

Those who took 1.5 minutes or longer to climb the stairs achieved less than eight METs, which translates into an anticipated death rate of two to four percent per year, or 30 percent in ten years.

Researchers also conducted heart function imaging during the stair tests. The results revealed that 58 percent of the participants who took more than 1.5 minutes to climb the stairs had abnormal heart function– a possible indicator of coronary disease– during the exercise.

“The stairs test is an easy way to check your heart health,” says study author Dr. Jesús Peteiro, a cardiologist at University Hospital A.

“If it takes you more than one-and-a-half minutes to ascend four flights of stairs, your health is suboptimal, and it would be a good idea to consult a doctor,” Dr. Peteiro adds.

The Stair Test is Not For Everyone

This method of assessment seems easier and cheaper than traditional stress tests. In fact, hypothetically, one could perform the stair test with a simple stopwatch.

However, the stair test may not be advised for people who are elderly, prone to falling or have limited mobility. For others, stair climbing is tough on joints. And for others still, charging up multiple steps — à la Rocky — seems excessive.

Fortunately, stair climbing isn’t the only way to perform a heart health self-assessment. Other activities can also be used as indicators of cardiovascular health. For instance, if you can walk two city blocks, then your heart health is moving in the right direction.

Step it Up For Better Heart Health

Stair climbing can also be included as part of your regular exercise regimen. You can tackle stairs at a park or even at home with a stair climber machine such as StairMaster.

Basically, this stationary fitness machine rotates steps, allowing the user to climb upward at the pace he or she sets.

A stair climbing machine can offer an above-average cardio workout, while also toning quadriceps, hamstrings, calves and glutes. In addition to toning the lower body, it’s also great for strength-building. And, since climbing stairs is a weight-bearing exercise, it’s beneficial for bones. This becomes particularly important as we get older, because bone loss tends to increase as we age.

Compared with other cardiovascular exercises such as running, climbing stairs at the park or on a machine is relatively low impact.

If stair climbing is not your thing, simply add a bit of moderate hill climbing on your daily walk to boost your exercise capacity. Or, go for a higher gear on your next bike ride around the neighborhood.

Just Get Moving

Dr. Peteiro and his team encourage everyone to undertake a regular exercise program to improve not just heart health, but the health of the whole body.

“Physical activity has positive effect on blood pressure and lipids, reduces inflammation and improves the body`s immune response to tumors,” says Dr. Peteiro.

I couldn’t agree more. This latest study proves that exercise is a medicine we all need. So, whether it’s stair climbing, walking, biking or swimming, I suggest picking exercises you enjoy so you’ll actually commit to doing at least one of them every day.


  1. European Society of Cardiology. “Test your heart health by climbing stairs.” December 2020.