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Need an afternoon energy boost? Stair walking may be more helpful than caffeine, say researchers

Spending 10 minutes walking up and down stairs appears to provide a greater burst of energy than ingesting 50 grams of caffeine.

If you’re looking for an energy boost during the day, but you don’t want to drink coffee or other caffeinated beverage, you might want to head toward the nearest staircase.

Spending 10 minutes walking up and down stairs appears to provide a greater burst of energy than ingesting 50 milligrams of caffeine, according to a small but still intriguing study published recently in the journal Physiology & Behavior.

And you apparently don’t have to break a sweat on the stairs to get the effect. Just doing the activity at a low-to-moderate pace seemed to be enough to re-energize people, the study reports.

Stair walking may, therefore, offer a simple, inexpensive — and healthy — way to get a quick pick-me-up in the afternoon, when the body’s natural circadian rhythms can cause your energy levels to flag.

And it’s a way of getting that energy boost without resorting to caffeine, which, if taken in mid- to late afternoon can interfere with your sleep later that night, leading to fatigue again the following workday.

A common problem

As background information in the study points out, feelings of low energy or fatigue are common among workers in the United States. One national survey found that 38 percent of American workers, particularly women, said they had been tired while at their jobs within the previous two weeks.

Many factors can, of course, cause fatigue, including a physical or mental illness, inadequate diet and physical inactivity, but one of the most common causes is sleep deprivation.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported that 40 million American workers, or 30 percent of the country’s civilian workforce, get six or fewer hours of sleep each night — less than then seven to nine hours recommended by sleep experts for adults.

Study details

For the current study, researchers at the University of Georgia, recruited 18 college students, all women between the ages of 18 and 23. They were healthy, but described themselves as chronically sleep deprived, getting less than 6½ hours of sleep most nights. The women were not highly physically active, but they were not completely sedentary either. They were also caffeine users, consuming an average of 40 to 400 milligrams of the stimulant daily.

To test the energizing effects of caffeine versus stair walking, the researchers brought the women into a laboratory for three experiments on three separate days. At the start of each experiment — and again at the end — the women underwent several verbal and computer-based tests to assess their mood, their level of motivation (to perform work-related tasks) and their ability to permit certain cognitive tasks.

The women were then given either a tablet containing 50 milligrams of caffeine (about the amount found in an 8-ounce can of soda or in one-third to one-half of an 8-ounce cup of brewed coffee) or a tablet containing a placebo, after which they were asked to remain seated for 30 minutes. Or they were instructed to spend 10 minutes walking up and down several flights of stairs.

“We found, in both the caffeine and the placebo conditions, that there was not much change in how they felt,” said study author Patrick J. O’Connor, a professor of kinesiology at the University of Georgia, in a released statement. “But with exercise they did feel more energetic and vigorous. It was a temporary feeling, felt immediately after the exercise, but with the 50 milligrams of caffeine, we didn’t get as big an effect.”

Limitations and implications

This study comes with plenty of caveats, of course. Most obviously, the number of participants was quite small, and they were homogenous — all young, healthy female undergraduates. The findings might not hold up in larger, more diverse populations. Also, the participants self-reported their sleep patterns — and whether they had obeyed the researchers’ rule to not consume caffeine within six hours of participating in the experiments. Any inaccuracies in those self-reports could have skewed the results.

The amount of caffeine given the participants also seems low — less than a typical cup of coffee.

Still, as already noted, low-intensity stair walking is a free and, for most people, easily accessible physical activity, and it doesn’t require changing in and out of exercise clothes — or showering.

So you might want to give it a try the next time you find yourself experiencing a temporary afternoon slump.

But there another set of steps you should also take: the ones that will help you get enough sleep.

FMI: You’ll find an abstract of the study on the Physiology & Behavior website, but the full study is behind a paywall.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the amount of caffeine the study cited as giving less of a boost than 10 minutes of stair walking.

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