How to tell if your heart is in good health: Can you climb 4 flights of stairs in 90 seconds?

SOPHIA ANTIPOLIS, France — Think you’re in pretty good shape but don’t use a Fitbit or other smart devices to keep track of your health? No problem, researchers with the European Society of Cardiology say all you need is a stopwatch and a few flights of stairs. Their study reveals the time it takes someone to climb four flights of stairs can reveal their overall heart health and risk for coronary artery disease.

“The stairs test is an easy way to check your heart health,” says study author Dr. Jesús Peteiro, a cardiologist at University Hospital A Coruña, in a media release. “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 study examined 165 patients who displayed symptoms of coronary artery disease and had been referred for exercise testing on their hearts. Each of these patients had been dealing with issues including chest pain or shortness of breath while exerting themselves. Researchers wanted to study the link between regular daily activities (like climbing stairs) and lab exercises for heart patients.

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

How fast should you go up stairs?

Participants first walked or ran on a treadmill, with the intensity gradually increasing, until they became exhausted. Researchers measured the results in metabolic equivalents (METs), which reveals a link to mortality rate. The more METs someone exercising can achieve, the lower their chances of premature death are.

After resting for 15 to 20 minutes, the group then climbed up four flights of stairs (60 stairs) without stopping and without running. Patients who took between 40 and 45 seconds to go up the stairs averaged between nine and 10 METs during the exercise test. Study authors say reaching 10 METs during exercise has a connection to low mortality rates (less than one percent per year).

On the other hand, patients who took 90 seconds to make it up the stairs averaged under eight METs. This translates to a mortality rate of two to four percent each year, or 30 percent over 10 years.

The picture of heart health

Researcher also captured images of the group’s heart to access the organ’s function under stress. If a heart looks and works normally while exercising, it indicates a low risk of developing coronary artery disease.

For patients taking 90 seconds to climb the stairs, 58 percent of them had abnormal heart function during the treadmill test. Just 32 percent of the patients who could climb stairs in 45 seconds had the same dysfunction in their hearts.

Dr. Peteiro believes the results of the stair climb test would be similar for the general population, not just heart disease patients.

The findings are being presented at the European Society of Cardiology’s EACVI – Best of Imaging 2020.

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