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Climbing stairs is a good way to test heart health

A simple way to assess your heart health is to climb stairs, according to a new study from the European Society of Cardiology. The researchers determined that climbing four flights of stairs in less than a minute indicates good heart health.

Study co-author Dr. Jesús Peteiro is a cardiologist at University Hospital A Coruña in Spain. 

“The stairs test is an easy way to check your heart health,” said Dr. Peteiro. “If it takes you more than one-and-a-half minutes to ascend four flights of stairs, your health is suboptimal, and it would be a good idea to consult a doctor.”

The researchers set out to investigate the relationship between a common activity like climbing stairs and the results of exercise testing in a laboratory. 

“The idea was to find a simple and inexpensive method of assessing heart health,” said Dr. Peteiro. “This can help physicians triage patients for more extensive examinations.”

The trial included 165 patients who were referred for exercise testing due to suspected or diagnosed coronary artery disease. Their symptoms included chest pain or shortness of breath during exertion. 

For the tests, the participants walked or ran on a treadmill as the intensity steadily increased, and they continued the activity until exhaustion. The exercise capacity of each individual was measured as metabolic equivalents (METs). 

After resting for 15 to 20 minutes, patients were timed while climbing four flights of stairs, or 60 stairs, at a fast pace without running. The individuals were instructed not to stop moving.

The researchers analyzed the relationship between the METs scores and the time it took to climb the stairs. Patients who climbed the stairs in less than 40 to 45 seconds achieved more than 9 to 10 METs. Previous studies have shown that 10 METs during an exercise test is linked with the low mortality rate of one percent or less per year or 10 percent or less in 10 years. 

By contrast, patients who took 1.5 minutes or longer to climb the stairs achieved less than 8 METs, which translates to a mortality rate of up to four percent per year or 30 percent in 10 years.

During the treadmill test, the researchers used cardiac imaging to assess heart function. If the heart works normally during exercise, this indicates a low likelihood of coronary artery disease. These findings were compared to the results of the stair climbing activity. 

The analysis showed that 58 percent of patients who completed the stair climb in more than 1.5 minutes had abnormal heart function during the treadmill examination. On the other hand, just 32 percent of those who climbed the stairs in less than one minute exhibited abnormal heart function.

Dr. Peteiro noted that the correlation between the stairs time and exercise capacity would be similar in the general population, but the corresponding heart function by imaging would be more favorable for individuals without symptoms of coronary artery disease.

The research was presented at EACVI – Best of Imaging 2020, a scientific congress of the European Society of Cardiology.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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