Home exercise: Lower blood pressure by going downstairs

  • Why it’s healthier to walk down the stairs than to walk up
  • A wonderfully lazy way to improve your bone strength, blood pressure and blood sugar levels
  • Good news! The easy and slow bits of a home exercise can be better for you

As she got older my mum used to grumble about walking down the stairs.

And going down hills, too, for that matter.

“It’s not the up I mind so much,” she grimaced, “it’s the going down that hurts.”

I always thought this a bit strange.

That is, until I hit middle age and started to feel many more twinges and wobbles going down steep steps and hills than going up.

Now I empathise completely!

And it turns out there is proper scientific evidence that going down is harder on your body than going up.

Not only that, you can turn this to your advantage by making the stairs your simple, lazy, home fitness routine – no gruelling workouts, weight lifting or gym memberships required!

How to improve your bone strength, blood pressure and blood sugar levels

This all came from a podcast I was listening to recently; TV presenter Dr Michael Mosley was chatting to Tony Kay, a professor of biomechanics at Northampton University.

Kay is a proponent of what is known as ‘eccentric exercise’.

It’s nothing to do with what we think of as eccentricity – i.e. someone being zany in a funny hat or doing a silly walk or running backwards while barking.

An ‘eccentric’ exercise is where you stretch and release a muscle, rather than tensing and contracting it – which is known as a ‘concentric’ exercise.

An example might be lifting up a weight…

The eccentric bit happens when you put the weight down on the floor rather than when you lift it up.

According to research published in 2014 in the Journal of Applied Physiology, this form of eccentric movement was better at building muscle size and strength than concentric training.

Now I’m not about to demand that you start weight lifting – The Good Life Letter is all about gentle, easy ways to feel better without all the stress and risk.

But let’s go back to the much more simple idea of descending some steps…

When you walk downstairs you’re using a series of eccentric movements and these can have significantly more benefit to you than when walking up.

This was the discovery of researchers at the School of Medical and Health Sciences at Edith Cowan University in Australia, whose results were published in the Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise.

They asked a group of overweight women over the age of 60 to walk some stairs for 12 weeks – half of them had to take a lift up and walk down, while the other half had to walk up and take the lift down.

It turned out that those who were asked to go down the stairs lost the most weight and saw the greatest improvements in bone strength, blood pressure and blood sugar levels.

They believe that the jolting force of going down stairs stimulates a reaction in your bones that strengthens them.  It also utilises a lot more muscle fibres than the ones you use going up stairs.

What’s interesting is that it’s actually the damage caused to those fibres that gives you the most benefit – because it causes your body to release hormones that help rebuild the injured fibres, but much more strongly.

This repair process requires more calories to be burned by your body, which is why the weight loss was greater.

So it seems that simply walking down a large flight of stairs every day could do you a lot of good indeed.

But what if you don’t have access to stairs?

Well, that’s not the only means of doing eccentric home exercise…

Why the easy and slow bits of an exercise can be better for you

Professor Kay recommended a very easy exercise to Dr Mosley that requires only a chair.

You stand with your back to the chair, as if you’re going to sit down… then you lower yourself onto the chair very slowly, over a period of five seconds, before quickly standing up again.

Do this ten times over at least or keep going until you start to feel tired – that’s when you know it’s probably working!

To make it even more effective, try it on one leg and you’ll also get a boost to your balance, too.

Or if you want to do something that’s a little more like a classic workout, then you could apply the same principle to squats or press-ups.

In both cases, don’t focus on the hard bit – like pushing up – instead, focus on taking time to go down.

Professor Kay advises a ratio of 3:1. In other words, if it takes two seconds to push up, then make sure you take six seconds to go down.

Kay told Mosely: “We’ve performed the same exercise in older individuals over 65 with some clinical conditions as well. They then had very large increases in strength anywhere from 30 to 50 percent increase in strength and a 10 percent increase in muscle mass… in only six weeks.”

So the good news is, you can focus on the easier bits of a workout – and do them more slowly – and get MORE benefit than the rigorous stuff.