101, Exercise, Self-Image, Sweet Machine

Stairs: the great equalizer

So, as I apparently feel compelled to mention each time I post, I’m in grad school right now, studying and teaching literature. I’m in the thick of end-of-term paper-writing and paper-grading, so I’ve been getting a lot of visits from students in my office, which is shared with several other grad students. This office is at on the top floor of a four-story building; there’s an elevator, but it’s not immediately obvious that it exists unless you already know where to look.

Let me tell you a little secret, Shapelings, especially those of you who have mentioned in various threads that you don’t feel bad about your weight except when you get tired going up stairs. Here it is: everyone gets tired going up stairs! Watching undergrads and grad students of all builds and levels of athleticism arrive at my office sweating and catching their breath has been a great lesson to me in how we beat ourselves up undeservedly. Thin students, fat students, bookish students, athletic students — all of them arrive in my little office needing a moment to catch their breath, many of them arrive sweaty, and almost all of them apologize to me for it. After observing this phenomenon for a couple weeks, if a student apologized for huffing and puffing a bit, I began telling them two things: 1) everyone feels like that after those stairs, and 2) that’s why I take the elevator.

Last year? When I didn’t have that office and would only have to go up to the fourth floor twice a week for class? I mentally beat myself up every time I got to the fourth floor, feeling terribly embarrassed for being red-faced and warm as I entered class. My classmates don’t seem to get sweaty! Something is wrong with me — I’m so out of shape! Sure, I walk several miles each day with no problem, but I must be a beast because I’m the only one sweating! It wasn’t until I was running late one day and hopped in the elevator — already occupied by two of my classmates — that I figured out that other people were just choosing not to take the stairs. And when I realized that everyone else was taking the elevator, I also realized that the only reason I wasn’t was because I heard the voices of a thousand women’s magazine writers telling me that taking the stairs was a great way to tone my thighs during my everyday activities.

The point of this post, then, is to remind us all of the obvious: Human bodies sweat. Human bodies get tired. Human bodies do some things with ease and some things with great effort. I’ve seen giant football-playing dudes and lithe 18-year-old girls come up the same set of stairs sweating at least as much as my 28-year-old, nerdy, untoned self. Find an activity that your body really likes to do — whether it’s yoga, walking, gardening, or Dance Dance Revolution — and give yourself a break on the other stuff. I’ll see you at the top of the stairs.

86 thoughts on “Stairs: the great equalizer”

  1. Thank you so much for writing about this. I always feel embarrassed when I’m out of breath after climbing stairs, enough so that I sometimes do a couple of laps around the building afterward to catch my breath. It really makes me feel better to know that even thin people suffer from that, because I’d always assumed it was just because I’m fat. Thanks for making me feel better about myself. :-)

  2. What a great post. Note that everything that you wrote applies to food as well. I always used to think I did things like ate a WHOLE frozen pizza sometimes or a WHOLE bag of chips occasionally because I was fat … and then I found out from my thin friends that everybody does that sometimes.

  3. Less flippantly, I’ve mentioned this, but it’s relevant here: I asked Dan in hushed tones recently whether he thought that non-fat people really didn’t get winded climbing stairs, because my heart beats faster and I get slightly out of breath if I have to run up the escalator to catch the Metro. Only after he pointed out that a) that’s not “winded” and b) that’s not “climbing stairs” did I stop beating myself up for being so out of shape.

    I’m fucking sick of “getting winded climbing the stairs” anyway, because it’s become as much of a chestnut as those ubiquitous donuts. Yeah, I know people who have trouble climbing a flight of stairs, and you know what? They’re ill, and they don’t deserve to be used as an illustration of out-of-shapeness. (I’m thinking of Dan’s mom, who really does have trouble climbing stairs, because she has practically every possible illness including cancer and she’s supposed to exercise how exactly?) Let’s trust people to know when their bodies are functioning at or close to their personal peak, without setting up these unrealistic (or at least easily misinterpreted as unrealistic — see above, I sorta really thought my heart rate was supposed to stay steady when running upstairs) external measures.

  4. I always used to think I did things like ate a WHOLE frozen pizza sometimes or a WHOLE bag of chips occasionally because I was fat … and then I found out from my thin friends that everybody does that sometimes.
    One of my fittest, most athletic friends is notorious for her appetite and her ability to inhale a huge bag of chips! :) In fact, I’d say on average that my thinner friends eat more than my fatter friends. Not trying to generalize in the other direction, just an observation!

  5. My graduate classes and the grad student lounge are on the top floor of a four-story building, too, and I always take the stairs as a force of habit. I’ve found that I am in better shape than many of the toned college co-eds huffing it up the stairs with me.

  6. Where i live we have a MONSTROUS set of steps called Jacob’s Ladder (check out the awesome 1910’s postcard: http://cornovia.org.uk/images/cpc_images/large/falmouth22_large.jpg)

    Which i walk up carrying my shopping pretty often. Its treacherous and uneven and only slightly shorter than the steps you get on the london underground (and ive run up those – foolishly. couldnt breathe at the top and my legs burrrned)
    And yet i STILL FEEL GUILTY for being out of breath at the top.

    Even when im with my wonderful boyfriend who has LEGS OF STEEL (he grew up living on a nearly vertical incline) is just as out of breath as me.

    Everyone gets out of breath in Falmouth, its made of all ups and downs and absolutely no flats. I tell you, there is nothing like HAVING to walk up a hill every day at a brisk pace because youre late into college, or actually choosing to add 10 minutes on to your journey home so you can avoid the mountain climbing and go a flatter route.

  7. Oy, the stairs.
    I work on the third floor, and because of when I arrive at work and my absentmindedness about where I park my car, I also park on the third floor, and I almost always take the stairs, unless taking them would be foolish, like when I’m wearing higher-than-usual shoes or carrying many things, like boxes.
    I hate feeling out of breath when I get to the top, but on the other hand, it does demonstrate that I’ve been taking them.
    We have a couple of elevators in our building, which has five floors. The people who work on the 5th floor make up most of the elevator riders, but for some stupid reason, I feel like I need to apologize for taking the elevator. Part of the reason is that taking the stairs is practically a religion in the group of people I work with, and there is almost no excuse in their minds for not propelling yourself up these stairs by your own power. It’s somewhat annoying, but I’m also glad of the extra bit of activity I get in this way.
    Thanks for mentioning it, and for talking about how people of all sizes get winded.

  8. but for some stupid reason, I feel like I need to apologize for taking the elevator. Part of the reason is that taking the stairs is practically a religion in the group of people I work with, and there is almost no excuse in their minds for not propelling yourself up these stairs by your own power. It’s somewhat annoying, but I’m also glad of the extra bit of activity I get in this way.

    That’s really what drives me crazy — I mean, absolutely take the stairs if you WANT that activity, but the attitude that all people (especially fat people, especially women, and of course especially fat women) should get in as much exercise as humanly possible is just infuriating. Some days, I do take the stairs (if, for instance, I have enough energy and I’m wearing comfortable shoes). But some days? Taking the stairs is going to make me feel like puking, and so I just don’t. And some days I just don’t feel like getting the workout even though I’m otherwise feeling fine, and that’s okay too.

    Remember, your body is nobody’s business but your own.

  9. Stairs do make everyone tired, but I really like them!

    I like to hop up them 2 at a time! But hopping down them is more fun! Yes, people stare at me when I do this but it is lots of fun and a great way to procrastinate getting somewhere you don’t want to.

    But no one should feel obligated to walk up stairs.

  10. The bloody stairs.

    In July, we moved from a house that had one set of stairs (that I didn’t even go up every day, because there was only one room upstairs: the kids’ bedroom – I only went up there every 2 or 3 days to check the cleanliness level) to a house that has FOUR flights of stairs. (We live in an old Victorian house that was converted into 2 flats, but we have both; six people are NOT going to fit into two bedrooms!)

    I wasn’t at all daunted by the fact – I honestly thought that, after a while, I would get used to it and not get winded anymore.

    It’s been five months and that ain’t happening yet.

    The funny thing? The Hub, who is actually underweight, has a ton of medical issues at the moment (arthritis, heart complications [epicarditis], joints that just GIVE OUT, etc.) but doesn’t have a problem with the stairs. But if he’s already in the bedroom (ours is on the top floor) and I come up there, I get winded. Every time, he asks me what’s wrong. Every. Single. Time. I’m all “Duh! The STAIRS?!”

    But yeah, I’ve been beating myself up about it. Because, surely, after five months, I should be getting used to climbing all those stairs, shouldn’t I?

  11. Stairs. The absolute bane of my existance. And it isn’t just because I get all huffy-puffy when I walk up them. It’s because I always seem to tumble DOWN them. Be it flat shoes or stillettos….I have a habit of tumbling down a flight of stairs.

    I will still take them (moving very slowly and gripping the banisters for dear life), but for the most part I prefer the elevator. Cause see, thin thighs are useless to me if my ankle is broken. :-D

  12. It’s interesting that you mention this because stair climbing is my primary form of exercise.

    I live on the 15th floor and about 3 times a week I walk up. I have to stop at least twice and I move slowly. I get very winded, so I always stop when I need to.

    I used to go to the gym every week and I think this has made me more muscular. Also, I prefer to do cardiovascular work that involves actually getting from point A to point B instead of just running in place. Even better, this takes about 7 minutes of my day instead of almost 3 hours when I was doing the gym (I didn’t work out for that long but I’m counting getting there and back and time in the locker room).

    So I know how hard the steps are, and by the time I get upstairs I’m verrrrry sweaty and panting like a dog.

  13. thewellofemoness, im so totally in agreement with you about going down stairs! I always walk a funny rythm and count the steps when i go down the stairs from my college studio. Theres 3 short flights of 12 steps each, with 3 strides between them on the flat bits.

    just knowing that pleases me in ways i feel sooo guilty about.

  14. My apartment is at the top of four flights of stairs. I have to climb them at least twice a day. I have a rule that I can’t go up or go down without something that needs to do either (though I drop plenty of Laundry Basket Bombs on the weekends.) Imagine carrying 35lbs of cat litter, plus gym bag, laptop bag and a bag or two of groceries up four flights of stairs, pretty much every time you go.

    You guys know how much I go up those stairs and how much I work out.

    Guess what. I’m still a little out of breath every single time. And so is pretty much anyone who comes up (which is pretty much reserved for the landlord, my neighbors and the UPS dude.) In fact, I’m the only one who doesn’t have to stop to gasp for air.

    Yet I STILL always think the only reason I’m out of breath going up those damn stairs that I do at least twice a day is because I’m fat. UGH.

  15. apricotmuffins, those looks like the stairs from The Exorcist, which are in DC and which I remember being KILLER to climb. (But so rewarding, because the effort and the experience of climbing creepy crumbling stairs that restrict your vision with their narrowness is that when you come out at the top, everything seems faintly otherworldly — even though it’s just normal Georgetown bars.)

  16. I have to do stairs at least twice a day since our bedroom is in the basement (and if I want to do any sewing, I have to do stairs again because the only place I can have a sewing room is in the grandkids’ playroom on the second floor). Since I have arthritis in one knee and it refuses to bend very far, I go down the stairs sideways and hang on to the rail for dear life (I don’t fall down the stairs, I tend to fall up them). I also use the handrail to pull myself up the stairs. I don’t get winded doing them, but there’s only about 15 or 16 of them (I’ve never counted) and I do them slowly because they are steep and narrow. Anywhere else, if there are stairs and an elevator, I do the elevator and to hell with what anyone thinks about the old fat lady doing it. If there’s no elevator, then I do them slowly and tell people coming up behind me to go around because I’m too old, too fat, too tired, and too damned lazy to be in a hurry to get anywhere. They usually laugh and go on by. I’ve given up on caring what anyone thinks about how I navigate anything, all I want is to be able to do it as safely as possible for me.

  17. Why, oh why, do they stick us grad students at the tops of buildings? My classes and computer lab are on the fifth floor of a building here at Virginia Tech, and we always joke that this building has the slowest elevator on campus (surprise! Maintenance told us we weren’t too far off – only one other building has a slower elevator). Because of the lack of speed in our ellylator, most people choose to take the stairs.

    Me, I choose to let my happy fat ass wait for the elevator, since I usually walk to school, and thus usually have a mile or so of exercise behind me. No use in being even more sweaty. Besides, its a nice excuse to run to the vending machine and grab a coke :)

    Oh, and I work on the fourth floor of the library! Whoooo for heights!

  18. Ah, stairs. I live in a third story walk up. Actually, since I store my bike in the basement storage room, most times, it’s actually four flights of stairs when I come home. I do breathe a little heavier at the top, but I’m back at my resting heart rate and breathing in moments. I wouldn’t say I’m “winded” by climbing three flights of steps. To me, that sort of implies that one has a hard time getting back to normal breathing.

    Here’s what I figure. Stair climbing. It’s work. It takes effort (no matter your size). I’m hauling 265 pounds up three stories. Well, and whatever junk I happen to be hauling with me too. Maybe if one was super fit, like professional athlete fit, one might be able to climb that many stairs without ones breathing being affected, but ones heart rate would still go up.

    Sometimes, at work (bookstore), I do take the elevator. It’s not as many steps as up to my house, but since the ceilings are high, it’s the equivalent of a story and a half, almost two stories worth of steps. On a busy customer day, I might be up and down those steps like ten times an hour. That gets real old, let me tell ya. Especially when every darn customer makes some comment about how you must get your exercise that way.

  19. Two stories:

    1) We live in a second-floor walk-up. Al has a 72-year-old friend who came to visit us and had a lot of trouble with the stairs. This guy smoked like a chimney until a couple of years ago, when he quit because he kept passing out. And, uh, HE’S 72. But when he went to see his doctor after visiting us and mentioned he had trouble with the stairs, he was told it was because… drumroll… he’s too fat. And now he’s convinced he has to lose weight before he visits us again. And brushes me off when I say, “Exercise more! That’s wonderful! But NO, you do not need to lose a specific number of pounds before you can visit!”


    2) My lawyer lives/works in a 4th-floor walk-up. The last time I went to see her, I went up the stairs and got to the top feeling like a total loser, because I was breathing heavily, my heart rate was up, and I had some sweat on my forehead.

    She greets me at the door with, “Holy cow, you must be in great shape! You got up here so much faster than most people, and you don’t even seem out of breath!”

    Perspective, y’all.

    Also, said lawyer is fat, and she lives there. So, um, yeah.

  20. Thanks for this post! At my school, all the math classes are in a building on top of The Hill. I am always embarrassed when I come stumbling into class after climbing all the way up the thing, sweating and gasping. “Why doesn’t anybody else seem to have trouble climbing all these stairs?” I wondered. “It must be because I’m fat.” And I’d feel mortified.

    But then just the other day I overheard two young, fit-looking men talking. One said something about a class, and the other said, “What and walk all the way up The HIll? No way.” And it finally clicked that the reason my classmates aren’t visibly panting with exhaustion is probably some combination of:
    1. They have other classes in the buildings on The Hill before the ones I share with them, so they haven’t just come from climbing
    2. They are more timely than I am, and have the luxury of stopping to catch a breath halfway up, while I am always dashing up at the very last second
    3. Sweaty out-of-breathness is actually not that noticeable, so I’m not seeing theirs — and they’re not seeing mine

    I can’t tell you how much better this made me feel. It was really hard to start every class period feeling fatter (and somehow by extension, dumber and less worthy) than everyone else.

    I do confess, though, that a few days ago I slept wrong on my hip and it was killing me all day. I actively played up the limp getting in and out of the elevators, in case people looked at me and thought “oh, that lazy fat girl, she takes the elevator to go up one floor.” I should have thought, to heck with them! My tuition pays for this elevator too!

  21. This is a nice reminder. I often have to walk up stairs at school, and I was always quite self-conscious about it — even though I have lived in walk-ups for the last couple of years and get around on foot everywhere.

    Recently, I started taking the elevators at school due to a bad knee and a foot injury, and there are always other (thin) students taking it with me, so I’ve stopped feeling so bad about it.

  22. “oh, that lazy fat girl, she takes the elevator to go up one floor.”

    You know, I almost never have the “everyone’s looking and laughing at me” delusion… except when I take the elevator one floor. For “security reasons,” the stairs at my building are set up so that you can go down but not up (it’s complex and involves additional doors that lock from the outside). If I’m wearing comfy shoes, I’ll go to another part of the building and take the stairs, but otherwise I take the elevator, and I always want to turn around and go “THE STAIRS DON’T WORK I’M SORRY.”

  23. Hmm…good point! Haha, that’s about all I can say about that. Stairs are a struggle…but you’re right. I’ve never seen anyone get to the top of a few flights and proclaim that they wanted to go sprinting next…

    And on a totally unrelated note, a fun way to deflect those pesky relatives at the holidays who feel the need to comment on your every food and weight related move – “On my gosh, how flattering! I feel like a celebrity, with so many people watching my every move! Oops, ‘scuse me! My limo’s here!” and glide away. Just read that in a magazine in a waiting room of a Drs office. I don’t remember which magazine, but I almost fell over laughing.

  24. I always take the stairs on principle. Not because they are good exercise (that’s a bonus), but rather because it’s better for the environment than using the lift or the escalator.

  25. This post resonates with me.

    My high school was at the top of a hill and the school bus dropped us all off at the bottom of it. I used to be so paranoid about “puffing” , that I would hold my breath going up the hill in an effort not to be seen as being out of breath. Which needless to say, made the problem worse (gasping for air when I reached the top).

    It took me years to be comfortable BREATHING when going up stairs or a hill.

    And low and behold, I puff less when I take more oxygen in.

  26. I have bad knees (developed AFTER I lost 70 pounds in part by exercising at least an hour a day) so stairs can be brutal. I always have the same guilty feeling when I take an escalator up from the subway and stand to the right instead of walking up the left. I want to turn around and announce to the people queued up behind me, “It’s my knees, okay? I’m not lazy; I’m in pain!” Then I tell myself that if these people were in such an all fired hurry, they should have just taken the gd stairs their own damn selves.

  27. Wow! Thank-you-thank-you-thank-you for writing this. And all the comments are so familiar. I always feel bad when taking the lift (elevator) in work. I can happily walk the two miles it takes to get there in 30 minutes, but the stairs kill me. It doesn’t help that I work with two men who go running/playing sports daily. Sometimes I feel like explaining “I’ve had breathing difficulties since I was two days old” to try to justify myself.

    Oddly enough, they probably don’t care.

  28. Yes, I used to feel the same way until one day deep in a daydream I found myself at the top of some stairs that regularly used to kill me, it was all I could do not to snort like a horse usually and of course do that thing were you sort of supress your breath so that you are not panting, like you think people are waiting to judge you for, phew!

    Anyway, I was not the sightest bit out of breath, I realised then how much expectation, in this case negative can play in how you arrive at the top of the stairs. Since then I’ve faked being in better condtion than maybe I should be.

    I must admit, I do go up the escalator sometimes looking a bit smug to those you know, giving me that look, the fatties aren’t allowed to do that kind of look!

  29. This is interesting. One of my minor goals is to be able to charge up subway stairs without feeling at all bad at the top. I’ve managed it once.

    There’s a breathing technique–exhale more than usual, then inhale completely spontaneously–which enables me to move a lot more air. (For more, see Let Every Breath and Body-Flow:Freedom from Fear-Reactivity.) This is powerful stuff. I know someone fairly athletic who found he could do four times as many pushups with this sort of breathing. His shoulder should be completely recovered after three or four months. :-/ Fortunately, I’m not that gung ho.

    Anyway, I’ve managed getting to the top of the staris in comfort approximately once, but this is minor hobby, not a moral obligation. On the other hand, I went into this without even asking myself whether getting to the top of the steps without having my lungs feel bad was a reasonable goal. And I give myself points for not resenting the way I feel.

    Until rather recently, going downstairs was a big annoyance for me–I’d be using the bannister and sometimes going down one step and then bringing my feet together. My right knee wouldn’t take going down two steps.

    What made it much better was body/psychological work (various stuff, but the big change happened when I dumped a lot of lower body tension in therapy), not weight loss.

  30. I think that stairs (or any kind of vertical movement) are actually harder for fat people than they are for thin people.

    Here’s why: normally you’re moving on a flat plane. This means that your muscles have to support your weight, but rarely have to lift it. When you go up stairs or up a hill, you have to actually lift your weight. We’re not necessarily used to doing that. We have more muscle mass than smaller people, but usually a higher fat percentage. Normally, it doesn’t take that much effort to move the fat around. Sure, we might not be as bouncy, and it might take us a bit more effort to change direction, but on a flat plane, we can generally move as easily as anyone else.

    When we jump, or go up stairs, on ride a bike up a hill, suddenly we’re at a much greater disadvantage. We need a lot more strength than a thin person would – and a lot more strength than we’d develop by moving around on a flat surface. It just takes more effort.

    I worked all this out because – although I beat my (thin) husband at squash most of the time, exercise more than he does, and walk as fast as he does – he is much, much better at handling stairs and hills than I am. It’s just easier for him.

  31. I did a stair climb earlier this year raising money for the American Lung Association. There weren’t many people who weren’t struggling to get to the top floor (48 flights).

  32. Thank you for this post! I love you guys, you know that? ;) Anyway, my office (at grad school) is on the 4th floor, and I nearly always take the stairs (except those days I’m hauling my big bag of laundry up the stairs, b/c I don’t make enough money to rent an apartment with a washing machine, but I digress…). I get somewhat winded, which I’m always embarrassed about, because usually at least one of my labmates is in and invariably wants to ask me something right then. But you’re right – I used to have (all thin) undergraduate students come up to my office when I was teaching last year, and they would invariably get more winded than I would coming up the stairs. You’re right – it’s human!

  33. Oddly enough, they probably don’t care.

    They almost certainly don’t. And you know what? If they do, they are GIANT ASSHOLES.

  34. Heh, thanks for this post, sweetmachine. I work in an office on the fifth floor of a university building. When the students who are ten years younger than me and often in much better shape come puffing into our office, I always feel secretly reassured.

  35. Okay fellow Chicagoans, What is it with EVERY flight of stairs leading to the El being the STAIRS OF DOOM! I swear every morning I think I am going to die. Other stairs do not have this effect on me.

    Honestly I think the only time I ever took the stairs without getting winded was when the let us back into my building after the apartment above mine caught on fire. I RAN up three flights of stairs with 2 20lb cats hanging off me and I wasn’t even phased. I was seriously ready to go run two miles. Adreneline is freaking AMAZING.

  36. ahfreakingmen. I remember one day going up about 5 flights of stairs, running, while all the “skinny” people were heaving and whining.

    Sure, I was breathing heavy, but not to the point the little 95 pounds waifs were, which confused the hell out of me.

  37. What is it with EVERY flight of stairs leading to the El being the STAIRS OF DOOM!

    Heh. I admit that wherever possible at el stations, I take the escalator and STAND STILL, just because the rush-rushness of the el environment drives me bats. (I don’t do it to deliberately screw people behind me; just to test my own patience for being still and waiting to get somewhere.) Because of this, I discovered that even if I hear, “An inbound train, toward the Loop, will be arriving shortly” just as I’m walking into the station? There’s STILL enough time to take the escalator, stand still, and get to the platform before the train gets there.

    That announcement used to make me run like the wind, every goddamned time, because OMG WHAT IF I MISS THIS TRAIN AND HAVE TO WAIT 10 MINS. FOR ANOTHER ONE? So inevitably, I’d get to the platform completely out of breath and drenched in sweat, only to have to stand around for another minute and a half before the train got there. Not worth it, for so many reasons.

    The stairs at the Grand station KILL me every time, though. I take the 19 available escalators up from underground, but then you’ve got that one flight of stairs to get to the street, and every single time, I get 3/4 of the way up and then beg Al to carry me. (Which usually results in an answer like, “Fuck off. I wouldn’t roll you if you had wheels.”) For some reason, that one staircase wrecks me* in a way the 4 flights up to my lawyers’ office does not. Grrrr.

    *Of course, by “wrecks me,” I mean, makes me pant and maybe sweat a little bit, which is, as others have pointed out, a whole different bag from being truly winded. Once again, perspective.

  38. Kate, Is that the Grand blue line station? I climb those stairs every day and every day I am huffing and my legs are burning and I start praying I’ll make it to the top. I’ve only been climbing those stairs daily for the past 5 months and I dread that climb every day. I pray it will get better, but I don’t count on it.

    At home, I’m most afraid going down the 3 staircases we have. They are poorly designed staircases of death. They’re so steep I feel I’m being pushed down every time I go down them, and the one staircase doesn’t even have a banister to hold on to. Let me tell you as you feel your foot slide off the step on a staircase with nothing but wall to hold on to, it will strike terror into any man.

    I hate stairs!

  39. There are 259 steps to the Whispering Gallery in St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, and 284 to the top of the Arc du Triomphe in Paris. Seriously everyone is panting by the top – but they’re both worth the climb!

  40. Oh, penguinlady, you reminded me of York Minster.

    Hubby took me on a weekend to York back in April. He really wanted to go to the top of the tower and see the view. They clearly pointed out that there were 200+ steps to get to the top. I looked at that and figured that I’d be out of breath by the time I got to the top, but I’d be generally okay.

    Hoo-boy was I ever WRONG!

    By the time we got to the top, I literally collapsed in a heap. My legs had gone beyond burning, they were numb. And I had an asthma attack – the first one I’d ever had since we moved here almost 5 years ago (I have EXTREMELY miled asthma, which was mainly aggravated by the combined heat and humidity in Chicago. It gets humid here, but NOWHERE NEAR as hot). I was absolutely mortified. None of the other tourists seemed to have the same problem I had. The employee at the top made sure to tell me that I wasn’t the first one to end up like that, but I was still convinced that it was just *me.* That it was because I was *fat* and surely, if I was *thin* I wouldn’t have had a problem.

    I mean, my husband didn’t seem too bothered (he thought I was hyperventilating on purpose, but when he realized I TRULY WAS having an asthma attack, he quickly changed his tune), the employee there kept telling me I wasn’t unusual, and the other tourists DID look at me, but honestly, they were looking at me more with curiosity and concern (what the heck happened to HER?) than with obvious malice. I’m sure there probably were a couple of fat-haters there (them things multiply like jack rabbits, I swear), but they weren’t obvious.

    It was just MY thoughts. *I* thought those things, so of COURSE they were true. *ahem*

    I’m learning. Slowly, but I’m getting there. :)

  41. Oh nuckingfutz, that sounds awful! I hope you at least got in a nice view?

    I forgot to say that there are 327 steps between the first and second levels at the Eiffel Tower, and those were the ones that did me in… although I think it was more the fear of heights that caused me to hyperventilate!

  42. Holy shit. I just realized…. wow.

    Okay, so I live in a second floor apartment, and we’ve lived here since before my twins were born. Under normal circumstances, I can go up and down the stairs no problem, it’s just one flight, y’know?

    But can I TELL YOU how many times I beat the crap out of myself if I had a hard time getting up the stairs while carrying TWO babies in their giant car-seat carrier contraptions? Or later, when I would have to get two 20+ pound children out of their car seats and carry them and their diaper bag across the parking lot and up the low-rise outside stairs, and then up that last flight of stairs, I would beat the SHIT out of myself for being sweaty and panting after all that.

    Because, y’know, unless I can keep up with a Navy SEAL, hoofing a 40-50-pound load up a flight of stairs without needing to catch my breath afterward, then clearly I must be soooooo fat and out of shape. Clearly. snort.

  43. Wow, so many great observations here! luckyliz, I love your “celebrity” response to people scrutinizing your actions and food intake. Hee hee. :)

    I agree 100% with RoseCampion and Dee about the physics of lifting a larger body as opposed to a smaller one. If I remember correctly work equals force times distance, and is directly proportional to mass. So if you weigh twice as much as the person next to you and you are going up the same flight of stairs, it will take twice as much work for you to finish the task as it will the smaller person. Now, I am not exactly sure what that means in a practical sense (after all, your muscles, bones, lungs, etc. are all conditioned to carrying more weight) but I think it does mean in some concrete way that it is objectively harder for a heavier person to climb stairs, simply by virtue of being heavier, nothing to do with being “in shape” or whatever. Therefore it seems likely that if you and that thinner person were in the exact same “shape,” it would still be normal for you to breathe harder/feel more tired when recovering from climbing those stairs than the thinner person would. To say nothing of the point of the post… everyone does get out of breath going up stairs, as so many have confirmed. This is a message I definitely need to hear because I have also fallen into the trap of beating myself up for being “fat and out of shape” if I have to breathe hard after going up some stairs. Heck, right now I can run 4 miles at a stretch but my breathing and heart rate still go up somewhat even just climbing the 1 flight of stairs in my house.

    One of my own personal stair nemeses was having to go up to the 4th floor for a class in grad school, when the class change was too short so those of us in those particular classes always ended up power-walking across campus with a heavy backpack and then hurrying up those steep stairs. It never occurred to me that the fact that I was just fine propelling myself across campus was probably more important than the fact that I got out of breath going up the stairs.

    Pattie, on the subject of stairs at home, we used to have “health and safety moments” that people would share at work, and a disproportionate number of them seemed to deal with lessons learned following a slip and fall down a home flight of stairs. One person fell down the stairs while carrying his baby! After hearing all of these stories (and I’ve slipped down the last few of our wooden stairs myself–ours are also old and too steep, though it sounds like not as bad as yours–and it is definitely scary and painful) I make myself and my husband wear rubber-soled shoes or slippers in the house, never socks, when going up or down the stairs. I also try to hold on to the handrail and go up and down slowly. You always feel “in control” until that split second when your foot slips and then it’s too late. Very scary.

    And lastly, Kate, that is absolutely absurd about your 72-year-old friend. Every time I hear something like this I am infuriated again at how LAZY some doctors are. Just blame it on the fat, nobody will ever call you on it if you’re wrong because everything bad is caused by fat anyway. Gah.

  44. You guys give me something to feel good about every single day. It just occurred to me that I run up and down the stairs of my split-level house all day long and think nothing of it, but when I climb the two flights to my third-floor classroom, I’m all anxious and winded — not because of the stairs, but because of my fear of arriving fat and puffed-out in front of my class. No more. It’s certainly not like they care about what they look like in front of me! (I’m looking at YOU, stained-Tshirt guy, and wrinkled flannel pajama-pants girl!)

  45. Spacedcowgirl- Work is actual force *dot* distance. So there is a cosine term in there which takes into account flat vs sloped surfaces. Being that work is effectively a measure of energy, a larger person expends greater energy when going up stairs than a skinny person.

    And therein lies my physics dorkness for the day ;-) (stupid qualifying exam studying,argh).

    Now if we get onto the subject of fat people on roller coasters I have it down enough to do diagrams now. . .

  46. You know, one or two flights of stairs a day won’t make a difference. I am not sure why people would look at me and assume my ass is big because I take the elevator and not the stairs? Sorry, but unless I am climbing several stories, three or four times a day, more than likely we’re not talking enough “activity” to really make a difference. I know this because I regularly work out for about an hour 3-4 times a week and my ass is STILL BIG. So, climbing the fripping stairs daily won’t make a difference.

    Besides, I’m wearing heels, I’m in nice clothing and I’m taking the elevator….and those who climb the one to two flights a day can feel superior if they’d like to, but to assume anyone who is larger than average is that way because they ride the elevator is just crazy.

  47. Yeah, I think that is what I was trying to get at in my limited memory of the concepts. I was kind of rolling the angle into the quantity of the force in my brain. So if you were going up a ladder it would just be your weight that constituted the force, right? On a flat or sloped surface the fact that the surface is supporting you to a complete or partial extent mitigates part of the difference in weight between you and the thinner person. On stairs it would be more similar to walking up a steeply sloped surface.

    I think I get it in a general sense but I have been known to be wrong… anyhow thanks for the further clarification. :)

    And I fully support fat people on roller coasters! Sounds like a fun summer day to me! Maybe we should designate a Shapely Prose amusement park/physics lesson get-together in ’08. :)

  48. I always used to think I did things like ate a WHOLE frozen pizza sometimes or a WHOLE bag of chips occasionally because I was fat … and then I found out from my thin friends that everybody does that sometimes.

    Chartreuse…try “skinny husband” and “packet of Jaffa cakes”!

    I’m glad the subject of stairs came up, actually, because I sometimes kid myself I’m fit till I go up to the second floor at work, then end up puffing and feel guilty…that elevator takes an age, so it’s quite simply quicker. Then again, now I think about it, the other people who use those stairs – some of them, I KNOW, very fit people – take them a lot slower. I’m just an impatient creature.

  49. The only people I know who don’t get out of breath on the stairs are those folks who train or workout…guess where? On stairs (or stairmaster). It’s a different range of motion things which is why Lance Armstrong might get out of breath on a long run etc., etc. So yeah, right on in not judging yourself by such an arbitrary thing.

  50. Spacedcowgirl-

    So yeah, the force you’re dealing with is directly related to your weight. Weight is a crappy measure as it’s a measure of force, not mass, but as long as we’re all on Earth and comparing the same force of gravity it works.

    And we got into the roller coasters thing on one of my boards. I spent a long time explaining how many g’s you’re pulling on corners and how that relates to the force needed by the restraints. People forget the fact that they are being subjected to additional acceleration on those things which ups their “weight”.

    (and I’m scared poo-less of roller coasters. I remember being 13 ish at Elitch Gardens and how close some of the beams were on the Twister)

  51. “You know, one or two flights of stairs a day won’t make a difference. I am not sure why people would look at me and assume my ass is big because I take the elevator and not the stairs? ”

    In my area, there are ‘public service’ commercials about how ‘easy’ it is to lose weight. The commercials usually show two people looking at a blob of something on the ground, then end up talking about how ‘oh, somebody must have lost their fat by doing *whatever activity* instead of sitting on the couch all day.” It ends with a long, enumerated list, with whatever that specific tip the commercial is playing up being highlighted. Some of the tips are “go out to the park instead of watching tv”, “eat more fruits and vegetables instead of high sugar/fat snacks”, stuff like that. Those commercials get played about 5 times a week in my area (while I’m watching tv, and I only watch about 2 hours a week).

    I’ve seen many magazine articles, heard from doctors, and now seen these things on TV that say things like this. “Oh, you want to lose weight? Even walking up one flight of stairs a day can help you lose ten pounds a YEAR! That’s not too much to do. When you drive to work or go shopping, park at the back of the parking lot and walk. If you do that all the time, you could lose another ten pounds a year! See how easy it is to lose weight?”

    I think people see all these images, and so it feeds into their and our sense of “fat and lazy”. If I can’t walk up 4 flights of stairs (or run up that hill, or do DDR for 2 hours straight) without being sweaty and out of breath, then OMG! I’m LAZY and out of shape and that’s why I’m so fat.

    I did those things for a year. I worked in a call center, and my shift was one where I’d never have a close space by work. So I walked a good block from the nearest parking space I could find to the building. And the rule (not unspoken either) was that if you worked on the second or third stories, unless you were disabled in some manner, you COULDN’T ride the elevator to your floor. Considering this was a modern office building, and the first story was about two stories tall, and then another standard story and a half between floor two and three, you’re looking at almost four flights of stairs. (I counted, the number of stairs betweeen the first and second floor was 25.) I never got ‘used’ to that walk and climb for the whole time I was working there, either.

  52. I agree that it really is a matter of conditioning to a specific activity. I worked on the fifth floor of a courthouse for about a year, and the elevators were so slow and crotchety that it was faster to just take the stairs — which I did, 4-6 times a day, trot trot trot. I was out of breath at the top, but not tired particularly, because I was used to them. Seven years later, I run and do Pilates and am in better shape in a lot of ways, but those stairs just about knock me out now. Stair fitness was an indication of absolutely nothing other than my comfort at those stairs.

  53. Pattie, on the subject of stairs at home, we used to have “health and safety moments” that people would share at work, and a disproportionate number of them seemed to deal with lessons learned following a slip and fall down a home flight of stairs.

    A few years ago, I went down some of the MANY stairs in the townhouse I was living in (more than one person referred to the layout of that house as “like a lighthouse”) wearing high heels, missed the bottom stair, and fucked my knee up but good. That knee is still tricky.

    Went to the doctor about it and was told, of course, that I would not have knee problems if I lost weight. Never mind that I’d been fat for some time and never had knee problems UNTIL I FELL DOWN THE GODDAMNED STAIRS.

    Then again, now I think about it, the other people who use those stairs – some of them, I KNOW, very fit people – take them a lot slower. I’m just an impatient creature.

    Oh, that’s such a big one for me, too, Emerald! Same thing for me swimming or riding a bike — I think I’ve talked about that before. I have no friggin’ clue how to pace myself, so I end up crapping out after what seems like not very long. Then I beat myself up for being fat and out of shape, instead of looking at the reality, which is that I’m exhausted because I totally poured it on without even warming up, because I’m an idiot who doesn’t know how to do things slowly.

    And I definitely do that on stairs. If I took my time instead of half-running just to get the stairs over with, I’d probably huff and puff a whole lot less.

  54. Great post, SM. I remember in college being annoyed with all these (mostly skinny) people who would take the elevator down one flight of stairs, when the stairs were perfectly accessible and there was nothing apparently wrong with these folks physically that would have prevented them from walking. Of course now I know there are potential mitigating factors (e.g. just because someone doesn’t “look injured” doesn’t mean they’re not) but back then I just found it bewildering — “it takes twenty seconds to get down the stairs and five minutes to wait for an elevator — what are they, stupid, or just unbelievably spoiled?”

    But one flight of stairs isn’t the same as four. Four flights of stairs is a lot. Lance Armstrong would probably get a little huffy walking up four flights. I might do it anyway if I’d been a little short on activity lately, didn’t feel like waiting for a lift, wasn’t carrying anything heavy or spillable, and didn’t care about looking sweaty on my arrival, but if anyone thinks I owe it to them to always take the stairs, they can bite me with Pepto-Bismol.

  55. “Went to the doctor about it and was told, of course, that I would not have knee problems if I lost weight.”

    Oh, naturally. GRRRRR.

  56. I used to teach class on the 5th floor of a building with no elevator, two flights of stairs per floor – man NOBODY liked being up there. Sometimes though I used to hide out in the bathroom just outside the classroom so I could catch my breath and wait for all my students to roll in. That’s of course when my fat self would jog and hop into the room, all smiles. He he he.

  57. This post and the comments both make me feel so much better about myself. I live in a rowhouse, four stories including the basement, which means that I’m up and down stairs all the time, even if I’m only “sitting around”: the couch, TV, and kitchen are on one floor, and a bathroom is either up a flight or down a flight; the bedroom is up a flight. And that’s not counting any housework, where I am inevitably upstairs and need to bring something downstairs, or get up to the third floor and forget the dustrag in the basement, etc. Stairs are a constant in my life.

    At home I can go down a flight, grab who knows how many pounds of laundry, bring it all up two flights, and be breathing a little heavy but not sweaty. That’s just life. At work I go down a flight, hand papers to someone in another department, go up a flight, and be absolutely horrified that I have to take three deep breaths before my heart rate is back to normal–which I have to do because THE WORLD WILL END OMG if I’m huffing a little bit when I get back to my desk.

    Damn stairs.

  58. I live in a five-floor walkup. (I’m aspiring to be Romana K. when I grow up.) If I breathe really deeply going up the stairs, I’m not winded when I get to the top (despite congenitally weak knees so I’m never going to build the quads and glutes it would take to jog the things).

    HOWEVER, if I’m going up steep stairs in some public place (I stand primly to the right on DC Metros from bottom to top; I don’t care to have my makeup mussed — the incline on those things is like the Mayan Pyramids) using the same breathing pattern, I inevitably get some strange glance. You’d think in NYC people would have more on their minds.

    Moral of Story: Pukey people will always have something to say, want some place to put their disdain. Some people are perpetually dissatisfied with life and feel they must vent upon you.

    I either offer them a perky “And what positive productive thing are you doing for the planet today?” look, or enjoy a vigorous eyeroll as we pass.

    Women are NOT supposed to breathe or sweat. I saw some mighty wackness on Craigslist the other day from some 50-y-o bloviating blowhard (you’d think he’d have gotten over it by 50!) along the lines of, “Must take obvious pride in her appearance but never take a long time to get ready.” OK, Prize Boy.

  59. Thanks for this! I live on the fourth floor in my apartment building, and I often feel guilty for taking the elevator – it’s years of women’s magazines and diet plans in my head, lists of “100 ways to get a little exercise into your day – park further from the mall! take the stairs instead of the elevator!” in my head.

    I work on the fourth floor of my building at work (we have the whole building), and our elevator is often not working, so we take the stairs. And I totally understand that embarrassment, like “I’m the only one out of breath from those three flights.” I’ve actually strolled really slowly to my desk so no one in my area sees me breathing heavily by the time I get there.

    I take a lot of stairs as part of my day as a subway commuter in NYC, and I have to climb three flights to get up to my elevated subway platform in the morning. For years, I would say, “I want to get in shape so I won’t be out of breath when I reach the top of the stairs!” I think your post was the first time I realized that *everyone else* is probably out of breath when they get to the top of those stairs, and it doesn’t say anything about me that I am! Yup, it gets my heart rate going a bit. Nothing wrong with that. In fact, sounds perfectly healthy to me.

    So thanks. :)

  60. oh MY GOD I had no idea this was a common truth… even when I’ve been at my absolute fittest I’ve always found climbing stairs left me a bit out of breath, and I couldn’t work out why… THANK YOU for making me feel less like a freak!

  61. Can we blah blah about you apparently being unable to write the word “ass”? Because that’s the silliest shit I’ve seen all day.

  62. Can we blah blah about you apparently being unable to write the word “ass”? Because that’s the silliest shit I’ve seen all day.

    Fillyjonk, you’ve got me laughing my @ss off over here.

    Apparently whoever that is must be the strongest person in the world, because I don’t know a soul, thin or fat, who could run up and down four flights of stairs for twenty minutes without getting a bit out of breath. Perhaps we should look into getting them some kind of cape and tights combo.

  63. Heehee, nuckingfutz. And EVERYBODY (who can walk) does the Rocky thing at the Philadelphia Art Museum anyway. It’s like, they can’t help it.

  64. Imaginary college students on the internet are WAY buffer than Rocky you guys.

    (As it happens I walked up three or four flights of stairs yesterday without even noticing it, which kinda weirded me out. It didn’t weird me out nearly as much as ending up in a room full of eight-year-old ballerinas when I got to the top of those stairs, mind you. But 20 times? Oh imaginary internet teenager, I am in awe!)

  65. going ups stairs

    Oh, I figured it out! It’s Toki from Metalocalypse. He’s Scandinavian AND the second-fastest guitarist alive AND (most importantly) fake, so I’ll buy that he can run up and down a bunch of stairs.

  66. :lol: Meowser, I’m gonna be honest with you: if I ever went there, I’d probably do it, too. I mean, come ON… it’s Philly! It’s Rocky!! Why the hell NOT??? :D

  67. Wow, this blew my mind! When I was in college, my department was on the 4th and 5th floors of an old building with an unreliable elevator, so almost everyone had to take the stairs. I was considerably thinner then, but was still so embarrassed that getting up those damn stairs was such an effort.

    A few years and the difference between a size 12 and a size 20 later, I had to go to the same building for a recommendation… Despite the fact that I rode my bicycle four miles to work every day, and another four miles home, in Tucson, AZ, in May, I still beat myself up for getting exhausted by those stairs. (Because of course the elevator was still unreliable– it would be almost immoral to fix it so that people didn’t take the stairs, right?)

    My company’s German office is on the 3rd floor, and has a teeny tiny elevator. After walking two-ish miles from the hotel to the office, I always felt so guilty if I took the elevator– never mind that I’d just walked two miles without incident. A (fat) friend who works there is constantly beating himself up about those dumb stairs.

    On a related note: one downside of having really fair, almost transparent skin? My face turns red so easily. Even if I’m not feeling winded or particularly challenged, I still turn red, which makes me feel like I look like I’m about to die from over-exertion. Gah.

  68. Aw, shit, I think I deleted the imaginary college student before realizing you were all having such a lively discussion about him/her.

    Good news is, s/he’s left another comment! Bad news is, I’m not approving it.

    Seriously, between this and the fucking CRON people, I can’t even have a sense of humor about new commenters today.

  69. Dude, the heart rate and respiration rate increasing is what is supposed to happen. That’s why everyone who isn’t specifically training for stair-climbing is a little out of breath! I wish people would realize that: “winded” is not “needing to take in more oxygen” and that “needing to take in more oxygen” is what everyone, fat or thin, is doing.

  70. I live on the sixth floor of my dorm hall.

    I take the stairs about once or twice a week, usually after my mum calls and asks me, “Have you lost any weight?”

    I’d like to tell her to shut up, that I walk two miles a day minimum just from going to and from class, and that I take twenty-thirty minute walks in the morning and evening, and that I’m eating healthier than I EVER did at home because there’s actually decent vegetarian options for meals here and yes, I’m still fat.

    I also have horrible asthma and those stairs make me want to DIE. Fortunately, after three fire drills in one week (!?), I figured out that EVERYONE on my floor has a hard time with the stairs. :D

  71. I haven’t read every single comment, so hopefully nobody has already mentioned this already. I was reading one of those fitness mags targeting women (“Self” or “Fitness” or the like) at the gym, and the editor was writing about this topic in her introduction to the issue. She said she felt bad when she was breathing hard when she went up 2 or 3 flights of stairs and asked an exercise physiologist about this. He said you specificially have to train on stairs (or other slopes) in order to not be winded and breathing heavy on them. You can train all day on a flat surface and still find stairs tough.

    Expecting to take the stairs effortlessly because you work out several days a week is like thinking you should be able to be a long-distance runner easily because you swim nearly every day- the training is completely different!

  72. Thank you so much for this post.

    I’m in the process of getting myself to the point where I can ride my bike to work every day — it’ll save me a ridiculous amount of money, and I can ride the lakeshore path almost the whole way, so it’s gorgeous to boot — and I’ve been cutting myself short at the gym.

    Because — gasp — I didn’t want to be one of those obnoxious, sticky, sweaty fat girls, gobbing up the equipment.

    I always keep my head down at the gym because I don’t want to see people staring at me, critically or laughing at me, as I’m always told people will do when I work out. Except, today I actually lifted my head and looked up.

    What do you know? Everyone in the gym is all sweaty and red-faced and puffing. Every size, every shape.

    Gee, maybe because they’re -exercising-? It was a revelation, honestly. It made me think of this post.

    So rather than pulling back when I got hot and really got into my workout, I just let myself go.

    I passed two — yes, TWO — of my workout goals for myself. I have the endurance to go for an hour, and I did it on one higher resistance level than I ever have before. And I still walked home, wasn’t overtired, and I’m feeling damn proud of myself. Sweated the whole damn time, and that’s the point.

  73. Oh! And as an additional note, I really shouldn’t worry at this particular gym. With the small exception of the equipment being a little bit crushed into the space, they’re extremely fat-friendly — the workers there are glad to have me, the personal trainer who showed me around -asked- me what I wanted and didn’t assume or suggest I lose weight and really helped me start working on endurance. http://know-no-limits.com/ is the place. Much love for them.

    And the owner has a gorgeous dog and pops by all the time with her.

  74. Hey, that know-no-limits place is near me! I almost joined up there, but I went with cheetah instead (possible mistake, but not too horrible of one). I like the cheetah gym because it’s full of the gays, so they are all just checking each other out and no one pays attention to little old me. And when I go into the weight room, the guys either ignore me or smile benignly.

    I only talked with a personal trainer there once, when he was instructing me on the seated leg press, and then was like “are you trying to build muscle?” (in a way that kindof said–you can already press like 200 lbs, fatty), but I just cheerily said “yes!” and he didn’t say word one to me about weight loss. Word.

  75. See, I take the stairs whenever a place has them because I’m from an area that not only is incredibly flat in land-shape, but is almost exclusively one-story in buildings. Stairs for me are an event. Even if I’m wearing 3-inch heels on three flights. Repeatedly. Ow.

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