As I am not a caffeine aficionado I have been known to go walk up and down stairs at work when I’m having a particularly sleepy day, it turns out that stair walking may actually be more effective, at least more effective than low doses of caffeine at improving alertness.
In a small study of 18 college age women who were already low caffeine consumers, and not particularly active, but who were all sleep deprived, Randolph and O’Connor (2017) compared three groups. The first group spent 20 minutes sitting and then walked stairs at a low-to-moderate intensity for 10 minutes. The second group consumed a caffeine capsule (50 mg of caffeine – which seems really low compared to any of the main chains of coffee that I looked up) and then sat for 30 minutes. The third group was similar to the second one, except that instead of caffeine in their capsule, they received a capsule of flour as placebo to form a control group.
The group that walked the stairs reported improved mood, but did not perform differently on tests of sustained attention, reaction time, or motivation to complete cognitive tasks after their stair walking.
As much as I, as the non-caffeine drinker, would like to take these results and run with them, I see some challenges.
Is 50 mg a reasonable dose of caffeine to compare to? If the majority of people are consuming higher doses than telling them they’ll get more benefit from walking stairs probably isn’t going to fly.
Does walking stairs for 10 minutes in a period of 30 minutes actually seem feasible? I’m just not sure how likely it is to convince individuals (or their bosses) that they need to move this frequently and for this much time. So while the researchers wanted to determine if 10 minutes of stair walking would help workers, they didn’t do this in a way that actually mimics a work day.
Three groups within 18 people means no more than 6 individuals per group. In addition, the participants were of a particular demographic but they did not seem to control for many of the other variables such as physical activity background or history of caffeine use (although it did control for current use).
I do think that this study is a potential jumping off point. According to the researchers, they couldn’t find any investigations into stair walking as a form of improving alertness, mood, and cognitive performance, so this is hopefully the first in a line of research that I can use to justify more frequent trips to the stairwell.
Randolph, D. & O’Connor, P. (2017). Stair walking is more energizing than low dose caffeine in sleep deprived young women. Physiology & Behavior, 174, 128-135. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.physbeh.2017.03.013