Take the Stairs for a Healthier Brain?

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In a 2016 study in Neurobiology of Aging, researchers correlated lifetime physical activities and education level of 331 healthy people (ages 19 to 79) with brain volume as seen on MRI scans, which decreases with age. Besides higher level of education, higher amounts of daily stair climbing were associated with decreased “brain age.” This was an observational study, so it merely shows an association between stair climbing and brain health and does not establish causality.

That said, all mental functions, including memory depend on an adequate supply of blood to the brain. Regular exercise promotes better mental functioning by improving cerebral blood flow. And, even if it’s never shown that stair climbing improves brain health, it’s still a good way to improve cardiorespiratory fitness, strength, and agility as well as burn calories (5 to 10 calories per minute).

If you want to give stair climbing a try, start with 25 steps or so and gradually increase the number you climb. Your goal can be a certain number of steps or flights of stairs or a set amount of time going up and down. To make it more interesting and boost fitness even more, you can do interval training on the stairs-alternate stepping at a slow to moderate pace with brief intervals at a fast pace. If you go to a gym, you can use a stair-climbing machine. And since even short bouts of exercise accumulated during the day can have health benefits, if you live or work on a higher floor, consider taking the stairs instead of the elevator.

However you do it, watch your posture: Keep your back erect or bend slightly forward from your hips. Pumping your arms and making an effort to push off the ball of your foot with each stride will increase the workout.

Note: Stair-climbing workouts can be very strenuous, so start out slowly and gradually increase the time and intensity. As with any strenuous exercise, if you are sedentary and have a chronic medical condition, arthritis of the knee, or biomechanical problems, it’s prudent to consult a health-care provider or physical therapist about the advisability of stair exercise. And if you’re at risk for falling, it’s best to find exercises that will help you maintain or improve balance.