Stairway to heaven? If you can’t run up four flights, you may be at risk

December 17, 2018

Every February, hundreds of competitors dash up 86 flights—or 1,576 stairs—during the Empire State Building Run-Up challenge in midtown Manhattan—and, amazingly enough, the winners usually reach the Observation Deck in 10-12 minutes. But how many steps could the average American heave himself (or herself) up before getting short of breath (or literally heaving)?

A study presented at a European Society of Cardiology meeting in Milan earlier this month by Spanish researchers has found that high performers on an exercise test have a lower risk of death from heart disease, cancer, or other causes—and the level of fitness required for those life-extending benefits turns out to be about the same as quickly climbing four flights of stairs without stopping, Health magazine reported on December 6.

According to the report, the researchers—led by study author Dr. Jesús Peteiro, a cardiologist at University Hospital A Coruña, A Coruña, Spain—recruited more than 12,000 people who had been diagnosed with or who were thought to have coronary artery disease. They asked the participants to walk or run on a treadmill, gradually increasing the intensity of the exercise until they were exhausted. During each session, the researchers used exercise echocardiography on the participants in order to measure how their hearts responded to physical exertion.

Their fitness levels were calculated in what’s called METs, or metabolic equivalents. One measly MET represents the energy it takes for a person to sit in front of a computer (relatively) calmly, Health reported. People in the study who could handle ten METs of treadmill activity were deemed to be high performers on the test—or to have good “functional capacity.

There were big health wins for those folks in the research: Compared to people with poor functional capacity, the high performers were less likely to die from cancer, heart disease, or other causes over the following five years or so. For every additional MET achieved in the test, their risk of dying from those causes decreased by 9%, 9%, and 4%, respectively.

Without access to a fancy sci-fi treadmill setup, how can us normals calculate our METs? That’s where the stairs come in.

“There are much cheaper ways to estimate if you could achieve 10 METs on the treadmill test,” Dr. Peteiro said in a statement. “If you can walk very fast up three floors of stairs without stopping, or fast up four floors without stopping, you have good functional capacity. If not, it’s a good indication that you need more exercise.”

Indeed, the doctor told the TODAY show, if you can do those four floors in under a minute, you can consider yourself fit.

“Our results provide further evidence of the benefits of exercise and being fit on health and longevity,” Dr. Peteiro said in the statement. “In addition to keeping body weight down, physical activity has positive effects on blood pressure and lipids, reduces inflammation, and improves the body’s immune response to tumors.” You’ve heard it all before, sure—but only 19% of women get enough exercise, so it’s worth repeating.

How much exercise is enough? According to recently updated guidelines for Americans, Health magazine notes, we should be aiming for at least 150 minutes of moderate physical activity or 75 minutes of vigorous activity per week, in addition to some strength-training. Which, by the way, you can even do on the stairs.

Research contact: @good health

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