Heart patients may be encouraged to regularly exercise such as walking, dancing or cycling after a cardiac procedure.

But is climbing stairs safe if done with the intent to exercise?

The typical mode of exercise that comes with cardiac rehabilitation also includes recreational level hiking, swimming and a light impact aerobics class.

However, not everyone has easy access to a gym, and not everyone wants to exercise outdoors.

But many people with heart ailments have a staircase in the house.

They may wonder if climbing stairs might be harmful for one who has compromised heart function.

This is because when climbing stairs is compared to walking, swimming, dancing, cycling or even a group fitness class, this activity sure packs a punch.

In other words, while most people – even healthy younger ones – would have no issue hiking nonstop for five minutes, or doing five minutes nonstop of brisk walking, a Zumba class or cycling – five minutes of nonstop stair climbing can be a real bear.

Climbing Stairs for Heart Attack Rehab

“Cardiovascular exercise is generally a good idea,” says Geoffrey Barnes, MD, cardiologist and vascular medicine specialist at the University of Michigan Health System.

“This includes walking, bike riding, swimming and climbing stairs.

“If someone had recently had a heart attack, then they should discuss with their doctor what a safe level of exercise would be.”

Mode of cardio exercise isn’t as important as effort application.

Certainly, a heart attack patient in recovery shouldn’t over-exert themselves even if it’s in the form of swimming or pedaling a stationary bike.

“I generally recommend that my patients attend cardiac rehabilitation to get back into exercise safely after a heart attack,” says Dr. Barnes.

McMaster University’s Department of Kinesiology decided to investigate whether or not staircase exercise was a safe form of activity for those who had suffered a cardiac event.

This was interesting because slowly walking up steps would be less strenuous than pedaling 150 rpms on a stationary bike with the pedal tension set in the moderate range.

The study showed that climbing stairs was, indeed, safe, but also effective.

Another thing to consider, though, is that many cardiac patients fail to adhere to any fitness program – and one of the reasons is the feeling that exercise takes up too much time. The time issue is solved with a staircase.

The study researchers worked with the Cardiac Health and Rehabilitation Centre at the Hamilton General Hospital.

How the Study Was Done

The participants had coronary artery disease and had undergone a cardiac procedure.

Coronary artery disease is when plaque builds up inside the walls of the arteries that supply blood to the heart.

Plaque buildup in a coronary artery. Shutterstock/Explode

The participants were randomly assigned to either a traditional, medium intensity program of exercise, or to vigorous stair climbing.

• Six flights of stairs
• Each flight = 12 steps
• Three sets
• Walking in between sets

After four weeks, both groups achieved improved cardiorespiratory fitness and had not suffered any ill effects.

Extra Bonus: New Muscle

All the subjects also experienced improved muscle function.

The report points out that whether the exercise is moderate intensity (such as a Zumba class or a brisk trail walk), or vigorous stair climbing, benefits to muscle tissue will occur.


The routine for stair climbing will encourage sticking with exercise for life for people who have a staircase in their house.

Though houses don’t have six flights of stairs, one can still tailor the program to be of a vigorous nature.

If you have a single staircase, you can simply march up the steps as briskly as possible or whatever it takes to bring your heart rate into the range that your rehab program or cardiologist recommends, then walk back down and then walk about briefly to recover, then march back up.

The study had the participants cover a total of 72 steps per set (three sets).

So if your staircase has 15 steps, you should climb it five times (5 x 15 = 75).

If your stairs are split – with a landing in between – and there’s a total of 13 steps, then you should climb them five or six times (72 divided by 13 = 5.5). You get the picture.

You may also consider a long set of stairs outdoors if one is convenient to your location.


Don’t Make this Mistake

There is one thing, though, that needs to be considered: the temptation to include normal staircase use during the day as part of your rehab program or lifelong commitment to exercise.

If you’re using the stairs for the sole purpose of transporting your body from one level in the house to the next, this does NOT count.

You were already doing this prior to your cardiac event or procedure (bypass surgery, stent placement).

A willful, structured exercise program is an addition to whatever movement your body normally does for the typical activities of daily living.

So if you normally use the staircase X number of times per day for transport, this does NOT get counted towards the 216 (give or take) step total (three sets of 72 steps).

There’s a significant difference between going up a staircase one time only, spread throughout the day, and going up the staircase repeatedly five or six times with the intent of vigorous effort!

Geoffrey Barnes, MD, is a cardiologist and vascular medicine specialist at the University of Michigan Health System and spokesperson for the World Thrombosis Day Campaign. Dr. Barnes’ clinical interests include treatment of vascular disorders, anticoagulation and general cardiac care.
Lorra Garrick is a former personal trainer certified by the American Council on Exercise. At Bally Total Fitness she trained clients of all ages for fat loss, muscle building, fitness and improved health. 



Top image: Shutterstock/Javani LLC
Source: sciencedaily.com/releases/2021/05/210517102635.htm