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Stair climbing - which is better up or down?

The health benefits of stair climbing are well documented but almost all research has focused on climbing up. Now, however, scientists are finding that climbing down stairs produces a very distinct set of health benefits.

Why might climbing down stairs produce different results? The answer it seems has to do with the very particular physical forces climbing down stairs has on the body.

Going down burns just a third of the energy needed to climb up but it provides a gentle jarring impact on the bones and it stretches the leg muscles rather than contracting them - something known as “eccentric” exercise.

Jarring the bones has long been recognised as a way of encouraging bone growth and therefore reducing the risk of osteoporosis or brittle bone disease. This is a particular risk for women whose bone density naturally reduces at a much faster pace than men’s from middle age.

New Research

Eccentric exercise, on the other hand is much less reported on. And if a new study conducted by researchers at the School of Medical and Health Sciences at Edith Cowan University (ECU) in Australia is correct, it could help protect against diabetes - now one of the biggest health risks worldwide.

The study recruited 30 obese elderly women and put them on a 12 week programme, with half walking upstairs and the others walking downstairs.

Their levels of resting glucose, insulin and haemoglobin 1AC, oral glucose tolerance, and triglycerides and blood cholesterols were all then measured to determine what if any impact the 12-weeks stair climbing had had.

“While both groups recorded an improvement it was significantly greater in the down stairs group”, said Professor Ken Nosaka, the study’s lead researcher.  “All of these changes will have lowered their risk of developing diabetes.”

As well as protecting against diabetes, the researchers found that the down climbers balance, walking ability, bone mineral density and resting heart rate and blood pressure all improved significantly more than the up stairs group.

“This is yet more evidence that not all exercise is created equal in terms of its health benefits,” Professor Nosaka said.

“If you work in a tall building … walk down the stairs when you go home. Or, if you are using weights, concentrate on the lowering the weights slowly, because the lowering action causes your muscles to perform eccentric exercise”.

The new research was published by ECU in the journal of Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise.

You can can find the full study at this link: “Effects of descending stair walking on health and fitness of elderly obese women

StepJockey has a much fuller page on the health benefits of stair climbing here.