Last year around this time, I made it my New Year’s resolution to take one extra flight of stairs every day at the office. I arrive every morning smugly congratulating myself for being a superior human being for not taking the escalator. Oh and I also happen to live in a third-floor walk-up apartment. Nothing could have prepared me more for headlines this morning that how well you do on a new stair test could determine your risk of dying.
Those headlines are riffing off a new study presented at a European Society of Cardiology meeting in Milan this week. Spanish researchers found that high performers on an exercise test had 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.
Here’s how the study worked: Researchers recruited more than 12,000 people who had been diagnosed with or who were thought to have coronary artery disease, aka damage or disease in the arteries that carry blood to the heart. The study participants walked or ran on a treadmill during a test called exercise echocardiography 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 is the energy it takes for me to sit in front of this computer (relatively) calmly. People in the study who could handle 10 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,” study author Jesús Peteiro, MD, PhD, a cardiologist at University Hospital A Coruña in Spain, 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.” Try to do those four floors in under a minute, Dr. Peteiro told TODAY.
Feeling particularly cocky, I took myself to the fifth floor of my office building, broke out my iPhone timer, and set off running. Only one naive bystander looked at me funny, and I was back in my chair before my coworkers even noticed I was gone—although my panting may have given me away. How many more years do I get if I can run four flights in 32 seconds?
Of course, it's not all that surprising that the physically fit people in the new research were more likely to live longer, even if the stair test itself is kinda fun. “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, 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.
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