Chronic Condition Management, Researchers, Workforce Health | By | 01/09/19

Stair Test Performance May Predict Risk of Heart Disease, Cancer

While stairs are everywhere, they are not often the first choice for getting in shape or testing your fitness. Running up several flights of stairs is deceptively hard and can even make the most fit athlete surprisingly winded. As it turns out, climbing stairs is as hard as we think, mostly due to science: fast-twitch muscle fibers are needed to propel the body up a flight of stairs, and those muscles fatigue faster.

But stair climbing isn’t all bad. Now, researchers have uncovered data that suggests that stairs can say a lot about whether a person has solid exercise capacity. How the body performs during a stair-climbing test and whether someone has good functional capacity may also predict a person’s risk of death from cardiovascular disease and cancer.

Measuring METs

In a recent study conducted by the European Society of Cardiology, 12,615 participants did a treadmill evaluation to test heart strength and fitness level by measuring metabolic equivalents (METs). For reference, one MET is the amount of energy your body uses to sit quietly, while walking at a brisk rate is ranked at three METs, and jogging equals six METs. This study defined good functional capacity as achieving a maximum workload of 10 METs.

The participants in the study all had known or suspected coronary artery disease. They underwent exercise echocardiography, which means they walked/ran on an increasingly steep treadmill test and continued until exhaustion, while clinicians captured images that offered a view into their blood flow and heart function.

For the next 4.7 years, researchers compiled extensive follow-up data of the individuals related to each person’s MET workload, mapped against their death rate due to cardiovascular disease, cancer, and other causes. The results yielded some interesting insights that show the importance of fitness for longevity. Here’s a quick summary:

  • The group had 1,253 cardiovascular deaths, 670 cancer deaths, and 650 deaths from other causes.
  • Each MET achieved was independently associated with 9 percent lower risk of cardiovascular death, 9 percent lower risk of cancer death, and 4 percent lower risk of death from other causes.
  • The death rate from cardiovascular disease was nearly three times higher in participants with poor compared to good functional capacity.
  • Cancer deaths were almost double in participants with poor compared to good functional capacity.
  • Non-cardiovascular and non-cancer deaths were also nearly 3x higher in those with poor compared to good functional capacity.

Stairway to Fitness: 4 Flights in 45 Seconds

Based on the findings, the cardiologist who conducted the study, Dr. Jesús Peteiro, offered an inexpensive way for a person to test their own fitness level. He notes that you don’t need to undergo exercise echocardiography, you just need a set of stairs (and in my own test, the Fitbit stopwatch feature also came in handy).  

If a person can walk very fast up three floors of stairs without stopping, or fast up four floors in about 45-55 seconds without stopping, they have good functional capacity. If not, it is an indicator that they need more exercise.

So the next time your office elevator is shut down for service, encourage your employees to turn on their stopwatch and take a dash up a few flights of stairs. In just one minute, they can get a glimpse into the state of their fitness and longevity, which–no matter how winded they are afterwards–is time well spent.

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