The mind is a powerful thing. Instead of agonizing and cursing your way up the 64 dreadful, tiring stairs to your walk-up apartment, you jovially tell yourself that you're getting a great workout. That you're in way better shape because you climb these flights to get back home every night. It makes the trek up and down each day–actually, a few times a day–way more bearable. But is it true?
Converting Steps to Miles: The Math is Fuzzy
Trying to convert steps climbed to miles walked or run is an inexact science. They're two different activities, and the amount of calories burned will differ wildly depending on the length and intensity of your movement for each.
For example, a 2013 article in The Wall Street Journal quotes a professor in the department of kinesiology, recreation and sport studies at the University of Tennessee as saying that "climbing a flight of stairs—roughly 10 steps—is equivalent to taking 38 steps on level ground." With 2,000 steps to a mile, you'd need to climb around 50 flights to equal a single mile walked according to their expert. The top Google search result (from Livestrong) for converting stairs to miles suggests a number closer to 350 flights to a mile. And I don't need to consult a university professor or Lance Armstrong to tell you that I'm a lot more tired after just a few flights of stairs than after walking a mile.
How Many Calories Do You Burn Walking Up Stairs?
Good news: We don't need to convert steps to miles, because we have a pretty good idea of how many calories you burn walking up stairs. According to StepJockey, you burn about 0.17 calories for every step you climb, or about a calorie and a half for every flight. You also burn calories going down, where every stair descended burns about 0.05 calories, or a half a calorie per flight, on average.
Doesn't seem like a lot, does it? There are some variables: The heavier you are, the more calories you burn. And walking up stairs in high heels is a better calorie burn, though maybe not the best for your posture and wellbeing overall.
There Are Other Advantages Besides Burning Calories
Before you give up on stairs altogether, you should know that climbing stairs is still really good for you, even if the calorie burn is minimal in your daily trek to your upstairs bedroom or up to your walk-up apartment.
Regular stair climbing can lower resting heart rates and improves balance, according to a 2014 study. And each trip up and down the stairs helps shape and tone different muscles in your legs and lower body. Overall, being able to climb stairs is a good marker of general health. Dr. Harvey Simon, associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, said it well in a column for the New York Times:
Many football coaches “ask” their players to charge up flight after flight of stadium steps to get in shape, and other competitive athletes put gymnasium stairwells to similar use. In the days before stress testing held sway, doctors would often walk up stairs with their patients to check out cardiopulmonary function. Even today, cardiologists tell heart patients they are fit enough to have sex if they can walk up two or three flights comfortably, and surgeons may clear patients for lung operations if they can manage five or six flights. As for housewives, taking care of a two- or three-story home is one reason American women outlive their husbands by an average of more than five years.
So hang in there and don't hop on the elevator just yet.