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How a treadmill 'stairs workout' can indicate your heart health, study says

How a treadmill 'stairs workout' can indicate your heart health, study says
(Image credit: Getty)

If you can climb four flights of stairs in less than a minute, it’s likely that your heart is in good shape, according to a new study presented at the European Association of Cardiovascular Imaging (EACVI) Congress 2020 this month.

“The stairs test is an easy way to check your heart health,” explained Dr. Jesús Peteiro, study author and Cardiologist at the University Hospital A Coruña, Spain. “If it takes you more than one-and-a-half minutes to ascend four flights of stairs, your health is suboptimal, and it would be a good idea to consult a doctor.” 

The study involved 165 patients who had been referred for exercise testing with known symptoms of coronary artery disease, including shortness of breath on exertion and chest pain. Researchers aimed to examine the relationship between a daily activity such as climbing the stairs with exercise testing in a laboratory.

How the stair test could indicate your heart health

Participants in the study were instructed to walk or run on a treadmill, and to gradually increasing the intensity to the point of exhaustion. Their exercise capacity was measured as metabolic equivalents (METs), with one MET being equal to the energy it takes to sit quietly. After resting for 15 to 20 minutes, participants were then asked to climb four flights of stairs at a fast pace without stopping or running. Their time was recorded. 

After completing both exercises, researchers analyzed the results, comparing the patient's METs during both the running machine and stair testing. They found that those who climbed the stairs in 40-45 seconds achieved more than 9-10 METs on the treadmill test. In contrast, those who took more than 1.5 minutes to climb the stairs achieved less than 8 METs, which translates to a mortality rate of 30% over 10 years. 

How a treadmill stairs workout can indicate your heart health, study says: A woman runs outside while listening to music on her earphones

(Image credit: Getty)

These results support previous research that discovered how older adults who achieved results of 10 METs or greater during exercise had lower rates of major adverse cardiac events. Another study found that people with METs less than seven had an 18-fold higher prevalence of Ischemia (a decrease in blood supply to tissues and organs that occurs due to narrowing of the arteries) than those who had METs of 10 or greater. 

Researchers involved with the new stairs test study also assessed heart function, capturing images of participants' hearts while they were on the treadmill and comparing these results to their stair climb times. Roughly 58% of patients who took 1.5 minutes or longer to climb the stairs had abnormal heart function that was picked up during the test, compared to 32% who completed the climb in under a minute. 

Upon presenting the findings this month, Dr. Peteiro stated that the stair test is an easy way to check your heart health, and encourages you to see your doctor if you find it takes you more than 1.5 minutes to complete the test. 

How to boost your cardio health at home

Dr. Andrew Freeman, director of cardiovascular prevention and wellness at National Jewish Health in Denver, Colorado, recommends 30 minutes a day of vigorous exercise that leaves you breathless. And the good news is that setting up a home gym can help you achieve your daily target within the privacy of your home. 

Jogging or running, cycling at a fast pace using one of the best bike trainers, or a cardio-focused online fitness program are all ways to get vigorous exercise into your day. Unloading heavy groceries from the trunk of your car counts too. 

For a moderate exercise session, cycling at speeds of between 2.5-4mph on an exercise bike, or going for a brisk walk, will do nicely. For a full body workout, you could use one the best elliptical machines a few times a week. For those who enjoy spending time in nature, gardening is also classified as moderate workouts.

Not sure if your workout qualifies as moderate or intense? If you can hold a conversation while exercising, you’re likely working out at a moderate level.

Looking for more health and fitness content? Take a look at our guide to the best fitness trackers for tracking your steps, calories burned, active minutes, and even your sleep.