Fitness Tips

‘I’m a Cardiologist, and Here’s What It Really Means When You’re Out of Breath From Walking Up the Stairs’

Zoe Weiner

Photo: Getty/Westend 61
My first three New York City apartments were sixth-floor walk-ups. My roommate and I used to joke that we were training to summit Mt. Everest, but no matter how many hundreds of times we worked our way up those endless steps, we were winded by the time we hit level two. It didn't make sense: We were making the climb at least once a day, every day, but it never got easier. According to a cardiologist, if you too, are out of breath by the time you reach the top of your steps, it has absolutely nothing to do with how "in shape" you actually are.

"The medical terminology for ‘getting winded’ is dyspnea," says Satjit Bhusri, MD, cardiologist and founder of Upper East Side Cardiology. This phenomenon, he adds, occurs when your heart is "working in overdrive" when you're exerting your muscles in strenuous activities, like walking up a steep flight of stairs. "Your muscles are demanding more oxygen supply and your heart is trying to meet that demand. The final result is cardiac output, which is essentially the amount of energy your heart is putting out to the body," he says. Your body works to balance its cardiac output by doing things like speeding up your heart rate or forcing you to breathe faster, which explains why your heart is pounding.

According to Cristian Plascencia, CPT, CSCS, a physical therapist with 1AND1 LIFE, there are a few different reasons why this might be happening. "Maybe you haven't had enough to eat and are under-nourished, maybe you had a tough training cycle, or maybe your heart has a hard time being able to pump more blood and oxygen throughout your body as you increase the demands of your system by going up stairs." In other words, if you're not doing stair climbing training in your day-to-day workouts, you still might be winded by the time you get to the fourth-floor stairs.

If you want to make those climbs easier, though, Plascencia suggests starting with low-intensity walks or hikes and focusing on building your capacity at these lower thresholds. "Breathing through your nose during low-intensity activities can help ensure you keep your heart rate relatively low and also help your body become more efficient at breathing and utilizing oxygen," says Plascencia. Start with 30 minutes, then work your way up to 75, and you'll see the effects in your breath when it comes time to hit the stairs... which will feel like a cinch after 75 minutes of hiking uphill (and proper fueling and rest, of course).

If you want to start tracking your metrics, to keep track of them over time, snag an Apple Watch:

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