FOR me, stair climbing is an exercise chaser. My real exercise is hard, sustained cardio, five times a week, at a gym these days, but a lifetime habit begun when I was an 8-year-old by running a half-mile before breakfast, around the block in Neenah,
Still, I enjoy climbing stairs. And at work, at The New York Times building, I climb nine flights, typically three times a day, for a total of 609 steps, up but not down.
The brief treks are back-loosening, head-clearing aerobic jolts — and they may be contributing more to my health than I suspect, according to exercise experts. Stairs, it seems, are a neglected asset in the fitness crusade.
“There’s good scientific evidence that the activity itself is quite beneficial,” said Paul M. Juris, a kinesiologist and executive director of the Cybex Institute for Exercise Science, in Medway, Mass., the research arm of the maker of Cybex exercise equipment.
Mr. Juris, a former researcher at Beth Israel Medical Center in Manhattan and a past consultant to professional sports teams, including the Dallas Mavericks of the N.B.A., pointed to stair-climbing scholarship. It concludes that a few brisk climbs a day, like my modest regimen, can increase aerobic capacity and reduce cholesterol.
Most any stair-climbing routine, experts say, is a healthy step, literally, toward achieving the recommended level of physical activity for adults, according to the American College of Sports Medicine and the American Heart Association. (The goal: moderate aerobic activity — think purposeful walking — for 30 minutes five or more days a week, or vigorous activity like jogging for 20 minutes or more at least three times a week.)
“It’s not all or nothing,” said Carla Sottovia, an exercise physiologist at the Cooper Fitness Center in Dallas. “Short bouts of exercise, like climbing stairs, certainly help. It all adds up.”
For real athletes, there are staircase races. Once regarded as oddball curiosities, the races have increased in number and stature. Last year there were more than 160 staircase races in the world, on five continents, chronicled and celebrated on Web sites like towerrunning.com. One of the earliest races, the 86-floor ascent of the Empire State Building, begun in 1978, was run for the 34th time on Feb. 1, attracting competitors from around the world.
Serious stair runners seem to be mostly marathoners and triathletes, who find stairs a related but novel challenge.
For Emily Kindlon, 30, a runner and triathlete, gaining access to high-rise buildings for training is an obstacle. Frustrated by her eight-story apartment building in Brooklyn, she asks friends in loftier homes for stair privileges. Yet building managers, she said, are reluctant to open their stairs to outsiders, and one asked her to sign a legal wavier.
“In case I fell and broke my neck,” she explained.
“I’ve honestly considered moving to a high-rise in Manhattan for the stairs,” Ms. Kindlon said.
To James Miller, 52, who runs up to 60 miles a week, stair climbing is a kind of cross-training, as if they were vertical wind sprints. “It really expands the lungs — that has to help the running,” he said.
Like Ms. Kindlon, Mr. Miller participated in the Empire State Building race this year. His training was done at home, by repeatedly scaling the 17 flights of his Central Park West apartment building. The training, he said, got him thinking about the neglected stairs.
“It’s not ingrained in our brains to take the stairs,” Mr. Miller observed. “But we live in New York City, and we have this great resource here — so many buildings with so many stairs.”