What counts as a total body workout depends on your fitness goals. If you want to lose weight all over your body, walking up and down stairs certainly can burn calories and help you shed fat. Similarly, if you walk fast enough to get your heart going, taking the stairs can strengthen your body’s cardiovascular system. But if your goal is to develop muscular fitness, better options exist.
A total body workout geared toward muscle development must involve all your major muscle groups. Walking up and down stairs challenges muscles in your legs and butt, such as your quadriceps and glutes. But unless you’re swinging your arms vigorously, muscles in your arms, shoulders and chest won’t get much exercise. Even if you do include upper-body movements, climbing stairs probably won’t involve enough resistance to stimulate significant muscle growth.
One option is to use stair climbing to develop your lower body while using other exercises to develop upper-body muscles. For example, stop between floors and do some pushups or carry hand weights. But stimulating serious muscle growth requires a strength-training program that involves increasing levels of resistance, such as an intensive weight-training regimen.
If weight loss is your goal, stair climbing is an effective form of exercise. The number of calories you’ll burn depends on many factors, such as your weight, the length of your workout and your climbing speed. But for comparison’s sake, a 160-pound person using a stair-climber machine can burn 657 calories in one hour, according to MayoClinic.com. Combine that level of exercise with a healthy diet that leads to a caloric deficit of about 500 calories per day, and you can expect to shed about a pound of fat a week. Climbing stairs faster or for longer periods will only increase those calorie-burning benefits.
Any exercise that is rhythmic, continuous and involves the major muscle groups can be effective for developing cardiovascular fitness, according to the book, “Action Plan for High Cholesterol,” by J. Larry Durstine, Ph.D. Squeezing in at least 150 minutes of moderately intense activity per week -- the minimum necessary for developing cardiovascular fitness -- can be difficult if you have a busy schedule. But if you have stairs in your home or at work, spending your lunch break climbing stairs can be a convenient way to increase your energy, strengthen your heart and lungs, and achieve the many other benefits of cardiovascular fitness.
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