For about six months of every year, many of us Albertans without a penchant for winter sports like skiing, skating, and snowshoeing—and without a summer home in Arizona—spend as much time indoors as possible. With autumn, our fitness routine becomes one of enclosure, as trails turn to treadmills, bicycles give way to stationary bikes, and we count down the weeks until the days are once again longer than the nights. And then, at long last, the arrival of spring offers sunshine and double-digit temperatures, clearing fields and trails of snow and ice and reintroducing a number of outdoor exercise alternatives.
One such activity that is often overlooked by fitness fanatics and casual exercisers alike is running stairs. This activity, which for some may involve walking more than running, nevertheless brings with it three distinct advantages over the treadmill. First, Edmonton offers dozens of suitable sets of stairs, many situated in and around our city’s world-renowned river valley. In addition to their scenic beauty, most of these staircases are under the sun, and sunlight stimulates vitamin D synthesis in the skin, potentiating a number of health benefits. Second, for this writer at least, running stairs does not cause painful shin splints as does running (or even walking) on even ground. And finally, due to the up-and-down nature of stair-climbing, high-intensity intervals followed by periods of rest are built into the exercise, and interval training, compared to endurance exercise, has demonstrated a number of health benefits in scientific studies. Let’s look at each of these advantages in greater detail.
Low-wavelength ultraviolet radiation (UVB), provided by sunlight, is readily synthesized by our skin to produce vitamin D. Vitamin D is not your average vitamin; it’s actually a hormone (or fat-soluble steroid) with a number of applications in the body. Not only does it help to prevent skeletal disorders like rickets and osteoporosis, it regulates cardiovascular health and reduces the risk of diabetes, some cancers, and even the flu. Vitamin D deficiency, on the other hand, can lead to depression and other mental health issues—including cognitive decline and dementia—as well as multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease. And while a small portion of our daily intake of vitamin D is met through food intake, around 90% is derived through exposure to sunlight. Why not, then, feed two birds with the same hand? Running stairs in the river valley, you can enjoy all of the psychological and physiological health benefits of exercise and vitamin D production at the same time.
You can exercise under the sun in other ways, sure, like a jog along a trail, but running stairs has two distinct advantages over a flat run. First, running stairs may offer an alternative to the intense discomfort of shin splints. Shin splints is pain along the inner edge of the shinbone, a common injury among athletes who engage in running or jumping sports. This blogger gets intense shin splints after a short run—or even a long walk—on level ground, and the pain can derail a workout altogether. Running stairs, however, has never induced shin splints for this writer, and in fact the exercise is great for toning and strengthening calves, quads, thighs, and glutes.
Second, running stairs lends itself to high intensity interval training (HIIT, pronounced “hit”). HIIT involves short bursts of exercise (typically 30-90 seconds) alternating with relief breaks of low to moderate intensity. Studies have found that a HIIT workout can yield a broad range of physiological benefits, often in far less time than continuous aerobic exercise; cardiovascular health, including maximal aerobic capacity, or VO2max, may see better gains with HIIT than endurance training, and increased VO2max has been shown to associate with lower rates of cardiovascular disease. Excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC) is also enhanced by HIIT, leading to higher and longer calorie burning following the completion of exercise. In addition, the surge of epinephrine and norepinephrine from HIIT training catalyzes fat loss, particularly lower abdominal fat stores, which are the unhealthiest fat deposits in the human body.
The Glenora Stairs, found directly west of the High Level Bridge on the north side of the North Saskatchewan River, is among the tallest in the city. For more advanced runners, one run up this flight may serve as an ideal high intensity burst, with the stroll back down allowing the perfect recovery period. Novice runners may wish to try a shorter flight, like the one next to the driving range at the Victoria Golf Course, or just use the upper or lower half of a taller set. And if you find running up the stairs too challenging, walking is fine too. Even a casual stroll up and down, several times over, will produce similar effects, particularly if you find your heart is really pounding at the top. Then again, if you’re in need of some extra motivation, the November Project is a club dedicated to group-based stair-running in Edmonton—three times per week, at 6:00 AM, in various locations. Check out http://november-project.com/edmonton-ab-canada/ for more information.