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Getting out of breath while walking up stairs: What's normal, what's not

Sometimes a short set of stairs can feel like Mount Everest. Here's why, plus tips for climbing the stairs without getting winded and when to call a doctor.

Caroline Roberts Digital Editorial Intern
Caroline Roberts writes articles and notifications for CNET. She studies English at Cal Poly, and loves philosophy, Karl the Fog and a strong cup of black coffee.
Caroline Roberts
3 min read
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How many times have you been walking along, minding your own business, when all of a sudden a short flight of stairs takes all the breath out of your lungs? Personally, I'd like to consider myself in pretty good shape, but I can barely hold a conversation with my walking-mate while climbing any staircase more than one story. 

It turns out, getting winded while doing simple activities isn't really a sign you're out of shape -- it's something that happens to everyone, fit or not. However, there are some simple steps you can take to make the experience less distressing the next time it happens.

Why do I get winded so easily and what's making it happen?


If you check your heart rate, it's likely to have spiked way up.

Rick Broida/CNET

The fancy medical term for what's happening when you get winded walking up stairs is "exertional intolerance." While approaching stairs, you're not warmed up -- your muscles are cold, your heart rate is low, and your body is not ready to move suddenly. When you start climbing, you're essentially doing single-leg squats with some cardio mixed in, and your heart rate quickly skyrockets. Your body suddenly needs more oxygen -- hence the feeling of being winded.

Another reason why it affects you so strongly is because walking up stairs uses your fast-twitch muscles, which are used for explosive movements, and muscles like your glutes that you may not commonly train. If you're an endurance cardio nut like me, you're in great shape, but sustained exercise like this uses slow-twitch muscles. So, it won't transfer over super well to exercises like stair climbing.

If you've been hitting the gym regularly but the stairs are still giving you trouble, don't fret that you're not in good shape. There are plenty of other ways to measure your overall health and fitness, including your heart rate or other metrics like body composition and strength. 

How do I stop getting winded so often?


Lunges will help you conquer the stairs with ease.

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If getting out of breath while climbing stairs is really putting a damper on your life, there are steps you can take to lessen the annoyance. I'm not going to suggest that you jog in place for a moment to warm up before ascending a short staircase with your boss, but here are a few ways you can prepare yourself ahead of time.

First, incorporate stair-specific exercises into your workout routine to train your body for the stimulus. Exercises such as sprints, jumps or other explosive movements will help with the sudden exertion. To train your glutes and legs, try bodyweight exercises like squats and lunges.

If you smoke cigarettes, it's almost certainly contributing to your windedness. Although e-cigarettes are touted as a healthy alternative, preliminary studies suggest that vaping also damages your lungs. 

When to call your doctor

doctor and patient

If you think your windedness is out of the range of normal, call your doctor.

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If you're debating whether or not to call a medical professional, you're better safe than sorry. One major warning sign to look out for is chest pain that comes on when you get winded -- it could be a sign of heart disease or a coronary blockage. The doctor will do a stress test, and if you do have a blockage, there's a simple procedure to fix it. Swollen feet and ankles or coughing is another sign there may be something wrong with your heart.

Another reason to seek medical help is if getting winded from basic activities is affecting your daily life -- for example, if you avoid walking short distances. Or, if the situation doesn't get better once you start exercising more, it may be time to consult a doctor or physical therapist.

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.