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A Stair Test Can Help Assess Heart Health at Home, Study Says

A close-up shot of sneakers as a person climbs a set of stairs.
Siam Pukkato / EyeEm / Getty Images.

Key Takeaways

  • A new study found that people who could climb four flights of stairs in under a minute were significantly less likely to have abnormal heart function.
  • The findings support using the stair test as an easy and free way for people to assess their risk of heart disease at home.
  • While useful, the stair test should not be considered a replacement for a stress test from a cardiologist, experts say.

Want an easy way to check your heart health from home? Try climbing a few flights of stairs.

New research from the European Society of Cardiology has found that people who can walk up four flights of stairs in less than a minute were significantly less likely to have abnormal heart function than those who took more than 90 seconds to complete the task.??

The results support the use of the stair test as an easy and free way for people to informally assess their cardiovascular health and potentially avoid the leading cause of death in the U.S.: heart disease.??

Stair Test for Heart Health

In a study presented at a scientific congress of the European Society of Cardiology on December 11, a team of researchers led by a cardiologist in Spain took a look at the relationship between a person’s ability to perform daily activities and the results of lab-based exercise testing as they relate to heart health.

The researchers recruited 165 people who had symptoms of coronary artery disease, such as chest pain or shortness of breath during physical activity. Participants started the experiment by running or walking on a treadmill with increasing intensity until they were exhausted. While participants were on the treadmill, researchers took images of their hearts and measured the value of their exercise capacity based on metabolic equivalents (METs).???

After the treadmill test, researchers timed how quickly participants could climb 60 stairs, or about four flights, without stopping or running. Data analysis showed that people who could complete the stair test in less than 40-45 seconds achieved at least 9-10 METs, which is generally associated with a low mortality rate. Participants who took more than a minute and a half to reach the top of the stairs achieved less than 8 METs, which has been linked with an increased mortality rate, according to the report.??

For reference, 1 MET is considered the cardiac work completed while sleeping, while everyday activities typically are typically 2 to 3 METs, and hustling up the stairs can use 6 METs or more, says Dr. Joshua?S. Yamamoto, cardiologist, author of “You Can Prevent A Stroke,” and founder of the Foxhall Foundation, a nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C.

“As a benchmark, the cardiac stress that we have to deal with during surgery is about 4 METs.?Even if you have advanced heart disease, if you can achieve 4 METs of work, you can get through surgery,” he explains.?

Researchers also compared the results of the stair test to the heart images captured during the treadmill exercise. They found that less than a third of participants who completed the stair test in under a minute showed signs of abnormal function. Conversely, 58% of participants who took more than 90 seconds to finish the stair test had abnormal heart function.???

Sanjiv Patel, MD

"The study shows that the stair test is a cheap, easy way to know if a person’s in good health or not."

— Sanjiv Patel, MD

“The study shows that the stair test is a cheap, easy way to know if a person’s in good health or not,” says Dr. Sanjiv?Patel, interventional cardiologist at MemorialCare Heart & Vascular Institute at Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, California. “If you don’t handle the test well, your long-term life outcomes probably aren’t good.”

The latest report bolsters the findings of a 2018 study by lead author Dr. Jesús Peteiro, a cardiologist at University Hospital A Coru?a in Spain, which found that people who performed poorly on an exercise test had nearly three times the death rate from heart disease than high-performing participants over the course of nearly five years. The exercise test was the rough equivalent of climbing four flights of stairs fast, or three flights of stairs very quickly.??

“[This] is new spin on an old insight,” says Dr. Yamamoto. “It has to do with demonstrating cardiac reserve, or proving what your heart can do.”

Should You Try the Stair Test?

Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the U.S., responsible for killing more than 655,000 people every year, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).?? Experts say that the stair test could help people monitor their heart health at home and potentially catch early warning signs of cardiovascular disease.

“The stair test is very basic, it’s a stepping stone in a sense. If you can do it pretty well, with no dizzy spells or difficulty breathing, you may be OK,” says Dr. Patel. “However, going up and down the stairs is not a replacement for a stress test.”

If you have trouble climbing four flights of stairs in under a minute or so, talk to your primary care physician or a cardiologist. They can determine whether you should undergo further testing for heart disease.

Joshua?S. Yamamoto, MD

"When a cardiologist watches you walk on a treadmill and takes pictures of your heart (which we do with ultrasound), we can typically tell you what makes you reach your limit."

— Joshua?S. Yamamoto, MD

“When a cardiologist watches you walk on a treadmill and takes pictures of your heart (which we do with ultrasound), we can typically tell you what makes you reach your limit,” says Dr. Yamamoto. “Is it your heart? Is it your lungs? Is it your bad hip??Do you have poor circulation to your legs??Or are you just out of shape?”

What’s more, passing the stair test doesn’t necessarily mean you have perfect heart health, “but getting breathless or tired before your time cut-off definitely means you should explore your cardiac health with a doctor or cardiologist,” adds Dr. Yamamoto.

Maintaining Heart Health

Regardless of how well you do on the stair test, there are steps you can take to improve your heart health, says Dr. Patel.

Eating right, sleeping better, reducing stress, and exercising—those are the key things you have to do at home so you don’t get into trouble,” he explains.

You also can reduce your risk of heart disease by maintaining a healthy weight, quitting smoking, avoiding excessive drinking, and managing your cholesterol and blood pressure, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

If you notice any signs of heart disease, such as chest pain, shortness of breath, pain or numbness in your legs and arms, or pain in your neck or upper abdomen,?? get in touch with your doctor or emergency medical services right away.?

What This Means For You

Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the U.S. You may be able to assess your own heart health at home by timing how long it takes you to quickly climb up four flights of stairs, according to new research.

If the stair test takes you longer than a minute and a half or causes symptoms of heart disease, you should talk to your doctor.

The stair test is not a replacement for a stress test at a cardiologist’s office, but it could help you catch early warning signs of heart disease.

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  1. European Society of Cardiology. Test your heart health by climbing stairs. Published December 11, 2020.

  2. National Center for Health Statistics. Leading Causes of Death. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Updated October 30, 2020.

  3. European Society of Cardiology. Performance on exercise test predicts risk of death from cardiovascular disease and cancer. Published December 6, 2018.

  4. Mayo Clinic Staff. Heart Disease. Mayo Clinic. Published March 22, 2018.