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A Simple Way to be Healthier: Go Upstairs and Have a Snack

Warren Rosenberg, Ph.D. MetroSports Magazine Member - American College of Sports Medicine

September 17, 2020

Even before the Covid-19 pandemic forced us inside and away from physical activity, many Americans had become sedentary, overweight, and at risk for a number of ailments including heart disease and diabetes.

Recent research has shown that there is a relatively simple way to regain better health. Take an ‘exercise snack’ and go climb some stairs. Whether you’re at home, at work, in the mall, or elsewhere, there is likely a set of stairs close by. Unlike the typically recommended 45-60 minutes of continuous exercise, an ‘exercise snack’ is a short burst of exercise that can be performed many times a day - whenever you you have a few minutes. A recent research study conducted on a group of university students has shown that just three short bouts of climbing three flights of stairs during the day, performed three times a week over a six week period, was sufficient to improve VO2peak, a measure of aerobic fitness by 5%.

Another study reported that, with three consecutive 20 second bouts of stair climbing with 2 minutes of rest in between, VO2peak increased by 12% and overall aerobic capacity increased by 1 MET, a measure of the amount of energy the body 'burns' at rest. That's about one minute of exercise for a noticeable gain in aerobic fitness. A third study demonstrated that two minute bouts of stair climbing, performed five times during the day on each of five days per week, improved VO2max by 17% and reduced blood cholesterol levels by 8%.

Another area of research is providing evidence that, just as our bodies work to maintain a constant normal temperature, blood pressure, and other factors, we have an internal mechanism that works to maintain a normal body weight. In this system, given the name ‘gravitostat’, cells known as osteocytes in the bones of our legs measure our body weight when we walk and report our weight to the brain. The brain uses this information to regulate our body weight at what is considered normal for each individual. If we sit too much and don’t accumulate the necessary amount of walking, this signal is reduced, and our brain comes to believe we are too light and adjusts our hunger and metabolism to gain weight.

On the other hand, research has shown that by implanting metal weights into experimental mice and rats, or having human subjects wear weighted vests for eight hours a day, the brain perceives a heavier body weight and the research subjects lose weight. And how much weight did the rodents loose? Just about the same weight as the implanted metal pellets. The human subjects lost just over 3 pounds on average. The study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences summarizes that, “too much sitting time results in a decreased loading of the bones, does not activate its signal to the brain, and results in obesity” and that “increased standing time increases loading and decreases obesity.” They also find that it also increases glucose tolerance and helps prevent diabetes.

So, do you want a simple way to get healthier? Get out of your chair and take a walk upstairs. A simple bout of “exercise snacking”, repeated three to five times a day, may just do the trick.


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