Stair-climbing: A step change in keeping fit

Climbing stairs is possibly the best and cheapest route to fitness ever invented. It's even a sport in its own right. Jane Taylor explains why we should give the lift a miss

There will be no lie-in for the England rugby full-back Ben Foden on Sunday morning. A recent dad and only just back from the team's Argentina tour, Ben's the poor innocent who has agreed to be the celebrity pacesetter in the NSPCC's Gherkin Challenge race. Foden says he has never done a stair-climbing race before. If he thinks any old elite rugby pro can leg it up 1,037 steps just like that, he's going to know differently by Sunday evening. Good luck with that, Ben.

The NSPCC started sending people up the Gherkin in 2010, after one of its supporters had spotted the idea at a successful fund-raising run up the Sears Tower in Chicago (2,109 steps). After a low-key start, the event has been gathering momentum, so this year the charity has expanded it into a weekend-long midsummer family festival.

Saturday features a vertical fun run; on Sunday it's all about hard-core competitive stair-climbing, with corporate teams pitting themselves against fitness fanatics and elite stair-climbers who do this kind of thing as their sport of choice.

Because, believe it or not, stair-climbing is an international sport with a full global competitive schedule and a tower-running World Cup championship, comprising 150 events across 25 countries. Michael Reichetzeder, executive director of the Towerrunning World Council, says its mission is to make it an Olympic sport.

The UK is unusual, he explains, in holding run-ups only as charity events; elsewhere they are pure sporting fixtures, attracting 65,500 athletes worldwide, including, increasingly, professional athletes from other disciplines such as distance running. Tower running is a crazy urban mutation of the traditional hard-man sport of fell running, in which wiry, solitary figures sprint up and down mountains. The tower runners have bigger thighs and don't much care for downhill running – too hard on the knees. But they are most certainly tough.

If the training is somewhat soulless and the financial rewards hardly Olympian, the cityscape views from the summits of edifices such as the Avaz Twist Tower in Sarajevo (780 steps), the Eureka Tower, Melbourne (1,642) Torre Colpatria (980) in Bogota, or – the toughest of all – Taiwan's Taipei 101 (2,046 steps), must be some compensation.

How perverse it is that this extreme sport is on the rise at a time when the majority of us make it our business to avoid stairs at all costs. For decades now, architects have conspired to remove the effort of vertical ascent from our daily lives, replacing it with ramps, lifts and the blessed escalator.

Dr Frank Eves, reader in lifestyle physical activity at Birmingham University, has spent his professional career working out how to get us to climb more stairs. In shopping malls, where only 5 per cent of us bother with steps "we put up messages on the way to the lift to tell people of the health benefits – heart disease, calorific expenditure – that they could get if they took the stairs," he says.

"There really is no need for escalators," Dr Eves says. "Disabled access can be provided by lifts." Is he suggesting removing them? "You could make them less convenient to use."

The facts show that stair-climbing is possibly the best and cheapest route to fitness ever invented. Intense and powerful, it's a complete training package for heart, lungs, bones, muscles and flexibility. It's best to acclimatise yourself by increasing your stair-climbing gradually over several months, aiming eventually to make stairs your lifestyle choice at every encounter.

The physical confidence it bestows can come in handy. A few years back I found myself arriving very late at the bottom of Adam's Peak, a remote and sacred mountain in Sri Lanka. If I was going to catch the "shadow footprint" cast over the 2,243m mountain at sunrise, I would need to climb the 5,200 steps in world-record time. With my years of dogged stair-climbing to draw on, I made it! And boy, was it worth it.

Applications for the Gherkin Challenge close at 23.59 on 20 June.

Jane Taylor is a specialist fitness trainer and writer.


Why stair-climbing is good for us

* Going up stairs has an energy-cost value of 9.6 METS (that's 9.6 times more energy than sitting doing nothing). This score is higher than almost any other cardio exercise, including jogging, and is on a par with vigorous swimming. Even better, the more you weigh, the greater the calorie-burn.

* According to research by Dr Lewis Halsey, of Roehampton University, the best weight-loss strategy is one step at a time, not double steps. His team found that climbing a 15m stairway (that's about 100 steps) five times a day burns an average 302kcal weekly using the one-step strategy, versus 266kcal using double-steps. At a rate of 75 steps a minute, it'll take less than half an hour a week – and no gym fees.

* Your legs will feel the benefits a couple of weeks after they experience the initial burn of the intensive muscle work involved. You will be improving both power and strength endurance. Don't dismiss the benefits of coming down, either. The energy expenditure may be less, but the work your leg muscles have to do against gravity is particularly valuable.

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