A Stair Test Can Help You Gauge Heart Health At Home

man jogging up stairs


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Key Takeaways

  • A recent study shows a correlation between a timed stair test and heart health.
  • A stair test can be used as an informal evaluation of fitness level.
  • A combination of diet and activity, even if that activity isn't formal exercise, can improve heart health.

Can taking the stairs tell you that your heart is healthy? A recent study by the European Society of Cardiology (ESC) presented at the ESC Congress last week says that a timed stair test can be a valuable indicator of how a patient may perform in a more formal stress test.

The study, conducted by researchers at the University Hospital A Coruña, Spain, measured the metabolic equivalents (METs) expended after patients climbed four flights, or 60 stairs.

What Are METs?

Metabolic equivalents, or METs, measure how much energy is expended during activity. As a baseline, one MET is the amount of energy needed when you are sitting still or lying down. The energy expended is measured by how much oxygen the body needs to complete a task.

Example: A person who weighs 160 pounds would expend 2.5 METs while walking slowly for five minutes. They wouldn't be breathing heavily or be using a great amount of oxygen to complete that task. An activity such as jogging at a 13-minute mile for five minutes would expend 6 METs, and requires more oxygen. Want to calculate your METs? Find a calculator here.

The survey group was made up of 165 participants, all of whom had been referred for an exercise-based stress test due to coronary artery disease. They were asked to do the stair test after completing other prescribed exercises.

People who achieved 10 METs in their exercise test consistently completed the stairs test in roughly 45 seconds. People who achieved 8 to 10 METs made it in just under a minute. And those who achieved fewer than 8 METs took over a minute to climb the four flights of stairs.

The study concluded that the longer it took to climb the stairs, the more serious the patient's cardiac situation would be.

Fit, Not Fat, Matters

So what does that mean? According to Martha Gulati, MD, the editor-in-chief of CardioSmart, the American College of Cardiologist's patient engagement initiative, says that essentially, there is a strong correlation between physical fitness and heart health.

Gulati conducted a similar study in 2005, evaluating how 6,000 women’s fitness levels translated to mortality rates. For this recent study, Gulati says that the beauty of the at-home stress test is that climbing a flight of stairs is an easily quantifiable action and one that doesn’t take any equipment. 

“We estimate fitness in a lot of different ways," she tells Verywell. "When we do a treadmill stress test, we are directly measuring it. We [also] generally ask people what they do every day. If they are a runner or swimmer or play tennis, it's great for people to use sports [as a litmus test], but for those who don’t, they can tell you, ‘I can go up a flight of stairs without any problem.’ Then we can ask them to time it and use that to predict their fitness level."

Typically, stress tests are prescribed because someone is already experiencing issues such a shortness of breath or chest pain. With a less formal stress test, such as a timed stair climb, doctors could still record a solid metric to ascertain a patient's fitness level, Gulati says.

For people who aren’t sports-oriented, incorporating stairs into their daily life can have a big impact.

“The more fit you are, the more likely you are to be alive," Gulati says. "It's a great predictor of the future. And we know this not just from cardiovascular causes, but all causes. [Fitness] has associations with things like survival from cancer, or freedom from cancer deaths."

Gulati adds that gauging your fitness level on fitness—including something like how many flights of stairs you can climb—is a welcome alternative to using weight as a marker.

"A lot of us focus so much on weight, and most of our patients hate knowing their weight," she says. "It's often the reason people don't come to the doctor; they don't want to step on a scale. I try to focus on what's going to matter more, fit or fat? And fit always wins.”

Martha Gulati, MD

I try to focus on what's going to matter more, fit or fat? And fit always wins.

— Martha Gulati, MD

Activity and Diet: A Powerful Combination

Brenda Braslow, registered dietitian for, cautions against starting any fitness routine without consulting a doctor, but says that cardiovascular exercise (such as stair climbing) is the best way to start getting heart-healthy.

"Cardio exercise works the heart muscle and circulatory system, providing the most benefit for improving heart fitness and blood pressure," Braslow tells Verywell via email. "Cardio exercise may also increase the HDL (good) cholesterol level. Cardio exercise also improves lung function along with many other benefits to the body, both physical and mental, like improved circulation and stress reduction."

In addition to cardio exercise, Braslow says that diet is important for heart health. Increasing the number of fruits and vegetables you consume can have a direct impact on your cholesterol levels.

"Fruits and veggies not only provide vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants but also contribute dietary fiber to lower the LDL (bad) cholesterol," she says. "I would also seek out soluble fiber from foods such as oats, dried beans and peas, and barley. Soluble fiber can improve the lipids in our blood."

What This Means For You

An at-home test can be a valuable indicator of overall health. If you can climb four flights of steps within a minute, your cardiac muscle is likely healthy. If it takes you longer than a minute and a half to climb four flights of stairs, you may want to make an appointment to see your doctor. A diet and exercise plan may be in order.

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  1. Antipolis S. Time to step up 4 flights of stairs gives relevant information on exercise testing performance and results. European Society of Cardiology. EACVI - Best of Imaging 2020.