Published on: August 14, 2016
by Tony Dearing for NJ:
You can exercise accidentally by taking the stairs.
Or you can do it on purpose.
Either way, climbing stairs is not only an easy, cost-free and invigorating form of exercise, studies show it can make your brain younger and add years to your life.
For every flight of stairs you go up or down regularly, you reduce your brain age by half a year, according to a new study led by research scientist Jason Steffener of Concordia University in Montreal.
Steffener notes some companies have fitness programs that encourage employees to take the stairs at work. He hopes his findings will motivate more people to do the same in their daily lives — particularly those of us who are reaching an age where we’ve become more concerned about brain health and the threat of dementia.
“This study shows that these campaigns should be expanded for older adults, so that they can work to keep their brains young,” he said. “This is encouraging because it demonstrates that a simple thing like climbing stairs has great potential as an intervention tool to promote brain health.”
Julie Joyner would second that. She’s senior manager of the Live for Life program at Duke University, where they’ve been prodding employees to take the stairs since 2005. Joyner says it’s a convenient form of exercise that can help you lower blood-pressure and cholesterol, reduce stress and lose weight.
“The key part is the ease of access to stairs,” she says. “It’s such an easy way to incorporate physical activity in the day. It’s available to everyone, it’s easy to do and there’s a big benefit.”
Across the Duke campus, employees who approach an elevator are met by signs reminding them how much healthier it is to use the stairs instead. Taking the stairs burns two to three times as many calories as walking on a level surface. Just two flights of stairs a day can help you lose six pounds over the course of a year. Stair-climbing also has been shown to increase bone density in post-menopausal women and to build leg strength, which is strongly associated with good health and better brain function in older people.
All of that helps explain why Dr. Harvey Simon, associate professor of medicine at the Harvard Medical School, calls walking the stairs “one of the best-kept secrets in preventative medicine.”
He points to a Harvard Alumni Study that found men who took an average of eight flights of stairs daily had a mortality rate 33 percent lower than those who were sedentary. That was better than the 22 percent reduction in mortality for those who walked a little more than a mile a day, he noted in the Consults blog for the New York Times.
We’d all like to live a longer, healthier life, but what captured my interest in stair-climbing was its role in preserving cognitive function. This column is devoted to brain health, prevention of dementia and successful aging. I’m looking for simple things we can incorporate into our daily lives that offer some substantial, proven way of keeping ourselves mentally sharp as we age.
Steffener and his and researcher team reviewed brain scans of some 330 healthy adults between the ages of 19 and 79, and found those who regularly took the stairs and those with higher levels of education had “younger” brains, compared to the loss of gray matter that’s normally associated with aging. They estimated the benefit at .58 months of reduced brain aging for every flight of steps walked daily.
Make no mistake about it: climbing the stair is serious exercise. Researchers in Canada took 17 healthy male volunteers and compared the level of exertion as they walked, lifted weights and climbed stairs. They found that taking the stairs required twice the energy that walking did, and brought the men to peak exertion much more quickly. The stairs required greater exertion than weight-lifting as well.
At the same time, taking the stairs is an option widely available to people of all ages. “In comparison to many other forms of physical activity, taking the stairs is something most older adults can and already do at least once a day, unlike vigorous forms of physical activity,” Steffener says.
Joyner says for people on the Duke campus looking to improve their fitness, a stairwell is never far away. It makes it easy for employees to get exercise in small increments throughout the day — and regardless of weather. “It’s a great rainy day option when people can’t get outside,” she says.
The Take the Stairs program at Duke invites employees to log the number of steps they walk up or down on a daily basis, and rewards them for levels of achievement. But the first goal is to get started, and that often requires encouragement.
“We try to help people with the barriers,” she says. “We get all of them: ‘I don’t have enough time, I’m too tired, I have kids, I’m traveling.’ We work really hard on trying to help them set a smart goal, starting in small increments.”
Joyner has found it’s easier to get people interested in fitness if they focus on the benefit.
“Maybe exercise isn’t their goal, but they want to be healthy enough to play with their grandkids,” she says. “Maybe when they retire, they want to be able to travel. Well, you can’t wait for retirement to become healthy. Your health may have deteriorated by that time.”
That kind of motivation is an individual thing. You have to find what moves you. But whatever inspires you to become more fit, taking the stairs will give you a daily lift that the elevator can’t.
Joyner says Duke routinely asks for feedback on its fitness programs, including the Take the Stairs challenge, and employees describe it as life-changing.
“We’ve gotten responses specific to the stair program that it helped them be more aware of their health,” she says. “They felt more energized. They felt they are more productive at work, and they felt satisfied they were doing something positive for themselves that really didn’t require a ton of effort.”
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