Getting up at least 50 steps a day is associated with a more than 20 percent cut in the risk of cardiovascular disease, new research shows – so you may only need to climb five flights of stairs per day to significantly boost your heart health.

The findings are based on surveys of 458,860 adults in the UK Biobank, with factors such as family history, genetic risk, and high blood pressure included in the analysis. Stair climbing reduced risk for everyone surveyed, the study found, but particularly for those who weren't already at a high risk of heart disease.

Climbing stairs is free, doesn't require a trip to the gym or any special equipment, can be done in all weathers, and is something we tend to do anyway as part of our everyday routines. It's one of the most universally accessible exercises there is.

"Short bursts of high-intensity stair climbing are a time-efficient way to improve cardiorespiratory fitness and lipid profile, especially among those unable to achieve the current physical activity recommendations," says epidemiologist Lu Qi, from Tulane University in the US.

Heart chart
Stair climbing was mapped against cardiovascular disease risk. (Song et al., Atherosclerosis, 2023)

What's also worth noting is that those who stopped climbing stairs regularly across the course of the study period (a median average of 12.5 years) had a 32 percent higher risk of cardiovascular disease than those who never reported climbing stairs.

The team was looking specifically at atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease (ASCVD), which includes conditions like coronary artery disease and ischaemic stroke, common causes of death worldwide.

Physical activity has long been promoted as a way of reducing ASCVD risk, though few have looked in detail at the link between stair climbing and heart health before.

Getting the heart working harder helps to regulate blood pressure and strengthen the organ itself, keeping it healthier and better protected against disease for longer.

Despite the large sample size here, the study isn't enough to prove cause and effect – that the stair climbing is directly responsible for lowering cardiovascular disease risk – because there are many variables involved. However, the association is strong enough to be significant, and to suggest that stair climbing leads to a healthier heart.

This isn't the first study to promote the benefits of getting up and down stairs either. The activity has previously been linked to reducing the risk of cancer, and improving cardiorespiratory fitness – so maybe don't take the elevator next time.

"This study provides novel evidence for the protective effects of stair climbing on the risk of ASCVD, particularly for individuals with multiple ASCVD risk factors," says Qi.

The research has been published in Atherosclerosis.