This article was updated on July 28, 2021.
Researchers say if you can climb four flights of stairs (defined as 60 individual stairs) in under a minute, your heart and cardiovascular system are in great shape. However, if four flights take longer than a minute and a half, it’s probably time to start thinking about some lifestyle changes.
“The stairs test is an easy way to check your heart health,” says study author Dr. Jesús Peteiro, a cardiologist at University Hospital A Coruña in Spain, in a release. “If it takes you more than one-and-a-half minutes to ascend four flights of stairs, your health is suboptimal, and it would be a good idea to consult a doctor.”
Obviously, there are more scientific and analytical ways of assessing an individual’s heart health, but all of those routes require the person to actually visit a medical office. Study authors wanted to identify a real-world, daily activity capable of gauging heart health accurately.
“The idea was to find a simple and inexpensive method of assessing heart health,” Dr. Peteiro adds. “This can help physicians triage patients for more extensive examinations.”
From genetics and BMI to dietary habits and exercise levels, a whole lot contributes to an individual’s heart health. When stopping to consider all of these factors, it’s easy to become overwhelmed by all of the different elements to account for. This “stair test” represents an easy way for anyone to quickly get a sense of where they’re at from a cardiovascular perspective.
How the researchers measured heart health
For this research, a group of 165 heart patients in need of exercise testing due to diagnosed or suspected coronary heart disease were assessed. Most participants commonly reported feeling sensations like chest pain or shortness of breath during cardio exercises.
Each patient was asked to walk on a treadmill with gradually increasing intensity to the point of exhaustion. While that was happening, researchers measured each person’s “exercise capacity” via metabolic equivalents (METs). METs refer to how much oxygen one uses while performing an activity. So, easy activities like standing still or walking slowly only use one MET, but full-on sprints can use over six METs. In a nutshell, more in-shape people can reach higher MET levels.
After the treadmill task, everyone was allowed to rest for 15-20 minutes. After that, participants were instructed to climb four flights of stairs as quickly as possible without flat out running. Study authors recorded how long it took each person to reach the top of the stairs.
All the data collected across those two experimental phases allowed the research team to investigate the relationship between METs achieved in part one and performance on the staircase during stage two. Sure enough, patients who were able to climb the four flights of stairs within 40-45 seconds reached nine to 10 METs during the treadmill task. On the other hand, people who took over a minute and a half to climb the stairs averaged around eight METs. This is notable because prior studies have concluded that people who can reach 10 METs during exercise have a lower mortality rate.
Now, a big giveaway of a heart problem is irregular beats during exercise. So researchers also kept track of heart activity during the treadmill test. Further confirming their suspicions, 58% of patients who took a minute and a half to climb the stairs also showed abnormal heart activity during the treadmill task. Only 32% of those capable of climbing the stairs in less than a minute showed any signs of an irregular heartbeat.
While this study was conducted with heart patients, study authors say they’re confident their findings can be applied to the general public as well. The larger public may not show the same levels of irregular heart activity, but the “four flights one minute” test should work as a general rule of thumb.
This research was presented at EACVI – Best of Imaging 2020.