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Q | I can run a 5K, but sometimes I get winded simply climbing stairs. What’s up with that?

A | You’re not alone! Many people get short of breath when they’re going up stairs because it’s a high-intensity, weight-bearing activity that raises your heart rate quickly and makes your lungs work to pull in oxygen. You’re essentially doing lunges while lifting your body against gravity and up something steeper than an average hill — most likely between bouts of inactivity.

“It’s a combination of it being hard work and not warming up,” says Paul Thompson, MD, director of cardiology at Hartford Hospital in Connecticut.

Just how much harder does that office staircase work your cardio system? In one study, Canadian researchers found that stair climbing was twice as taxing as walking on level ground and 50 percent harder than walking up a steep hill or lifting weights. In other words, it’s totally normal to be short of breath after climbing a couple of flights. (That being said, the American Heart Association advises seeing a healthcare provider if your heart rate doesn’t quickly return to normal; if you have a chronic cough; or if you are consistently out of breath or wheezing during exercise.)

If you’re healthy, consider the ample benefits of stepping up more often: Results from the Harvard Alumni study — a cohort study examining the relationship between physical activity and chronic disease — showed that men who climbed an average of eight or more flights of stairs daily had a 33 percent lower mortality rate than men who were sedentary. Men who walked 1.3 miles daily had a 22 percent lower death rate.

So the next time you’re inclined to use the elevator, take the time to climb instead. Each stair is a step toward improved fitness.

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