Why Walking Up the Stairs Makes You Out of Breath Even If You’re In Great Shape

June 20th 2017

Almie Rose

If you've ever huffed and puffed your way up a staircase and felt like a failure, let us assure you probably aren't.


(At least in regards to your health. That's pretty much all we can guarantee here.)

Even if you're physically fit, you may still find yourself a little breathless after some stairs. Here's why.

Joe Holder, a trainer and health consultant, told TIME why this happens. "You’re introducing a new variable very quickly," he explained. "You go from resting to doing something very quickly that’s typically under 10 seconds. That means you’re going to be in an oxygen-depleted environment, and then have to go back to normal; your body takes a second to catch up."

This can make anyone feel briefly winded. Holder said everyone has a "threshold" for how many stairs they can take at once before feeling the burn. "Some people get through four steps without being winded, and it's nothing, some people eight, and some people 12," he told TIME. "You have to find out what your threshold is. Those short first bursts don’t need oxygen, but then there’s that transition period where it’s like alright, your body starts to know that [it has] to use oxygen a little bit more, and that’s when you’re like, oh whoa, you’re a little bit tired."

You can fix this.

As TIME noted, the simplest solution is to "take the stairs more," which builds up your resistance and gets you used to being more "efficient" when walking up a set of stairs. One way is to try interval training. As Holder described it, "go fast up one flight, slow up the next. Or take two steps at a time, and then just one step on each leg after that."

Aside from the obvious cardiovascular benefits of taking the stairs, it can also improve strength.

There are workouts that specifically focus on using stairs. Think of it as an exercise tool (the original step machine). Prevention suggests doing lunges on a staircase by skipping a step and lunging your foot forward. They also recommend using the steps to perform a tricep dip or even push-up. Another tip is to walk sideways up the stairs; you're working different leg muscles, resulting in a more complete lower-body workout.

So, next time, if you're looking to workout on the sly? Take the stairs instead of the elevator.