One step, two step
February 4, 2006 4:37 AM   Subscribe

Do you burn more, less or the same amount of calories walking up a staircase one step at a time versus two?

This has the potential to be an incredibly stupid question, but I always skip every other step at least on my staircase. Some strange habit of mine, but it's just how I always do it. I don't "run" up the stairs, or ascend at a faster rate (but I'm not even sure that would have much impact on calories burned, assuming it was only going up once.)

If I were to ascend each and every step, and then ascend only using every other step, would I burn any more calories? It's late, and I'm sure I'm missing the obvious "no, stupid" explanation, but I can't really come to a solid conclusion.
posted by disillusioned to Health & Fitness (23 answers total)
Best answer: I would say you'd burn more taking two steps at a time. In terms of vertical distance you're lifting your weight, it's the same, so don't worry about that part. But in terms of vertical distance you have to lift each leg as part of the climbing motion, that would be greater, leading to greater energy expenditure. Similarly, taking two steps involves larger body movements overall, using muscles for balancing etc., so I'd say you'd burn more energy there. Imagine this - you stretch your legs are far as you can and try to take four steps at a time. You've bent over, you've lowered your body close to the horizontal, and you have to use all that extra energy balancing and bringing your torso upright again. On the other hand, imagine taking lots of tiny, tiny little steps. Your torso is vertical the whole time - no energy spent moving it back and forth.

Intuitively, I feel that "larger" steps would use more energy, even if there are less of them.
posted by Jimbob at 4:54 AM on February 4, 2006

What ever you do, you have to burn the potential energy difference from the top of the stairs to the bottom, which is fixed - mgh, where m is your mass, g is the gravitational constant (around 9.8), and h is the height of the stairs, straight up. I imagine the way you move doesn't change this (baring flailing your arms wildly), so I'd say no, there's no effect.
posted by Orange Goblin at 4:55 AM on February 4, 2006

i agree with Jimbob, i believe the extra effort spends more energy.

i mean, if you'd climb 10 floors going one step at the time you will be less winded at the end than climbing them 2 steps at a time. (at least i do)
I'm not sure how the MGH formula applies here and i know logic sometimes losses to real life but if i don't feel the same at the end then surely it means there is a difference no?
posted by sierra13 at 5:06 AM on February 4, 2006

My husband always takes the extremely large staircase next to our building two at a time because he says it works a greater variety of muscles.
posted by Brittanie at 5:14 AM on February 4, 2006

The consideration that you do more work lifting your legs up two stairs than up one doesn't take into account that you do it half the number of times...
posted by benzo8 at 5:14 AM on February 4, 2006

When you step further up, you accelerate and decelerate more... your vertical body speed is higher midway through the step. You're spending more energy on acceleration, so you're spending more climbing the stairs.

I very much doubt that it's a LARGE difference, but two steps is almost certainly more work.
posted by Malor at 5:25 AM on February 4, 2006

Isn't this basically a question of leverage? You use less force if you leverage something well, and more if you don't (to move the same distance). So in this case, taking every step in crease the distance traveled through leverage, but lowers the effort. Taking two steps at a time increases the effort but reduces the distance traveled by the lever. In this case the lever would be your thigh and calf.
posted by qwip at 5:39 AM on February 4, 2006

Do you burn more calories lifting a five-pound weight once or twice?
posted by melt away at 5:57 AM on February 4, 2006

You are probably less efficient two stairs at a time burning slightly more calories per stair, but then there is the extra stress it adds to your knees.
posted by caddis at 6:37 AM on February 4, 2006

Best answer: I am a high school physics teacher(with an engineering degree) who does a lab with the students where they measure their power by timing themselves as they run up the steps. From a physics standpoint, what Orange Goblin said is correct. What is rather intangible is the energy expended internally. How much energy is used(calories burned) holding a 5 pound weight at arms length? From a physics standpoint no work is done against gravity because you aren't raising the mass' potential, yet I challenge anyone to hold a 5 pound weight at arms length for an hour.
IMO, there are lots of factors that affect the answer here.
If you wanted to bring your knees to your chest with every step you'd burn even more calories.
I think for most people with average strides on average steps it makes very little difference whatsoever.
posted by sciencejock at 7:16 AM on February 4, 2006

I would guess the difference in calories burned is negligible. You're covering the same height and distance but just at a faster rate. This seems equivalent to asking if faster runners burn more calories. The answer to that question is the difference is negligible.

I'm guessing people feel they burn more calories because they feel more strain in their leg muscles. Going two steps at a time promotes improved leg strength but conversely one step at a time is better cardiovascular exercise.
posted by junesix at 7:21 AM on February 4, 2006

Best answer: Your body has evolved to be as energetically efficient as possible for common things: walking is one of these things. Your muscles, tendons and joints are built so that as you walk the energy of each step feeds into the next to reduce your energy output.

Whatever you can do to move away from that natural walking style will be less efficient, and hence burn more calories for the activity. So taking the stairs two at a time, requiring you to lever yourself up rather than use a walking motion, will, I suggest, use up more calories. A good measure of this is what causes most 'winding' and fatigues you quicker. Shoes, funny walking styles...

Finally, your metabolism is complex: causing your body stress by going into anaerobic respiration (making lots of effort, getting that burning feeling in your muscles, getting out of breath) may have longer-term effects than staying within your aerobic respiration zone (walking one step at a time.) For example, it may cause changes in your muscle density/composition, which have long-term effects on your calorie consumption. I'll own up to not knowing enough to be able to say what these changes might be, or how big a staircase you might have to climb to trigger them.
posted by alasdair at 7:36 AM on February 4, 2006

When you step further up, you accelerate and decelerate more

That's not true (for me) for individual steps on the stairs here. I just tried it, and it seems pretty easy to maintain an equally smooth upwards motion of my upper body whether taking one or two steps at a time. It would depend how big the steps are; taking three steps at a time, I can no longer maintain a smooth ascent. However, when going two steps at a time I do find it easier to ascend at a faster rate, meaning there's more acceleration at the bottom and at the top. With a bit of mental effort though, I can do it both slowly and smoothly. So I don't think that's necessarily a factor.

Whatever you can do to move away from that natural walking style will be less efficient, and hence burn more calories for the activity.

Yes, I agree. On average, unless you spend the mental effort to perfect your stair-climbing technique, then whichever method comes most naturally is probably the most efficient.

So taking the stairs two at a time, requiring you to lever yourself up rather than use a walking motion, will, I suggest, use up more calories.

Maybe, but not if the steps are small and your legs long.
posted by sfenders at 8:40 AM on February 4, 2006

Best answer: It would just be a function of difference in muscle energy expenditure, the physics components being equal.

Whatever you can do to move away from that natural walking style will be less efficient, and hence burn more calories for the activity.

Um..I think the movement away from walking style is correct in terms of an increase in muscle energy spent but I'm not sure if 'less efficient' is the term I'd use. Muscles all rely on blood flow and burning of biomolecules. Or I'm just nitpicking...forget it.

I believe an increase in energy spent would generally occur because when we move our limbs away from their low energy state - like walking casually to climbing stairs 2 at a time - we necessarily involve a larger number of muscles of the trunk, back and more limb muscles will come into play to help keep us upright and balanced and moving (think: dept. of silly walks - Monty Python)

So the further the reach up for the limb length/stair height, the more necessary it is that more muscles contribute to the process. Instead of say 25 muscles to plant the foot and lift the body, placing the weight on a smaller part, rather than a flat foot might require 40 muscles acting in unison and opposition to achieve the same end. The additional energy spent isn't really contributing to the output needed to overcome the physics of the climb - it's just to maintain less natural postures/balance.

And thinking about it, I doubt whether this difference in energy consumption would translate to running up stairs by comparison. If it was a similar 'bound' up 2 stairs that didn't particularly change the centre of gravity or require extra stretching (and therefore necessitating the assisting muscles coming into play as above) then the engergy expended would likely be similar to running a stair at a time.

Sorry if I'm just repeating anything from above - I only skimmed them.
posted by peacay at 10:44 AM on February 4, 2006

Short high-intensity workouts are more efficient than long low-intensity ones. Your body burns more calories after the workout than during the workout itself, so it's better to do two steps at a time. Source: "Body for Life" by Bill Phillips.
posted by Sharcho at 11:25 AM on February 4, 2006

I always figured that since you stop twice as often when ascending one stair at a time, walking up two at a time was more efficient. Of course, not all of your momentum is wasted when you stop, but a good amount of it is.
posted by qslack at 12:15 PM on February 4, 2006

You're doing basically same amount of work -- moving your mass (M) up X amount of feet. If you want to increase the calories burnt, you can either increase M, increase X -- or decrease T, the time it takes to climb the stairs. In particular, you're spending energy to increase your potential energy. You can recover this energy by going down stairs. The reason you work while climbing downstairs is that you're keeping yourself from falling.

I'm pretty certain that two steps at a time does in fact use more energy, because when I do it, I end up climbing the stairs much faster.

There's also efficency considerations, but the big variable that you can control on a given staircase is how fast you ascend. If two-at-a-time gets you to the top quicker than one at a time, you'll have spent more energy to accomplish the same work in less time.
posted by eriko at 1:27 PM on February 4, 2006

I understand what you're trying to say eriko, but from a physics standpoint you're not quite correct.

Power is the rate at which energy is used or work is done. Joules per second. Climbing the stairs faster accomplishes the same amount of work (same amount of energy) but with a faster rate, i.e. more Watts. The total amount of work done is the same no matter how fast you do it.

Much of the discussion depends on whether you're climbing at a constant speed or speeding up. Changing your kinetic energy takes more energy.
posted by sciencejock at 3:34 PM on February 4, 2006

I think you would use exactly the same amount of energy/ calories unless climbing two steps at a time was so strenuous that you raised your heart rate.
posted by fshgrl at 4:05 PM on February 4, 2006

Response by poster: Thanks for the fun answers and consideration, kids. Exactly what I wanted, although I didn't expect such a lack of consensus!
posted by disillusioned at 4:19 PM on February 4, 2006

Power is the rate at which energy is used or work is done.

Thanks, sciencejock! That was the word I was looking for -- but I note that I never actually used "work" as "power -- "you'll have spent more energy to accomplish the same work in less time" equals "You'll have used more power to accomplish the same work" since power is work over time.
posted by eriko at 9:22 PM on February 4, 2006

Just to add to the commentary: I almost never take steps one at a time, preferring instead to take them two at a time. When I slow down and take them one at a time, my glutes get used a lot more (some of this may be because my foot is further forward on the step). Two at a time seems to exercise the legs more.
posted by RikiTikiTavi at 9:36 PM on February 4, 2006

Physics makes the debate fun - but plain old physiology is more likely to provide an answer. Get yourself a heart rate monitor. Do your stairs ten times over ten days, alternatiing between the two methods. Download your heart rate date - and find out exactly how much time you spent in your target zone, below, and above.

Though this won't directly give you a calorie estimate, because (presumably) your two-step efforts will be faster, and therefore will take les time. But you'll be able to get a sense of which workout is of higher -quality-, which is really what you need to find out (and you can get calories estimates with some of the software that comes with some HRMs, though they're pretty inaccurate overall, since they base their calculations of "standard" tables. However, even if the actual # of calories the say you burned is off, the results will be useful for baseline comparison to each other.)
posted by soulbarn at 10:19 PM on February 4, 2006

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