Ask An Expert·3 min read

It's Not Just You — Climbing Stairs Leaves Us All Breathless

A woman walking up stairs holding a coffee cup
Design: theSkimm | Photo: iStock
March 11, 2024

Maybe it’s just us, but climbing stairs never seems to get easier — and we’re often huffing and puffing by the top step. But when is shortness of breath going up the stairs normal, and when should we be concerned? We asked Catherine Myers, MD, a pulmonologist with the Northwestern Medicine Canning Thoracic Institute in Chicago.

Is shortness of breath climbing stairs normal?

“If you're climbing more than two or three flights of stairs, it's pretty normal to get temporarily short of breath,” says Myers. That’s because “you need to deliver more oxygen to your tissues because you're using more of your body.” Meaning, it’s not just you, stairs are inherently hard.

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Catherine Myers

Catherine Myers - A pulmonologist with the Northwestern Medicine Canning Thoracic Institute in Chicago.

Plus, your body uses different muscles to get you up a flight of stairs than it does on your hot girl walks. Ideally, it takes a few flights before you feel out of breath, and then you recover fairly quickly, she says.

But if you often feel significantly out of breath going up a short flight of stairs and take a long time to recover, it may be a sign that something else is going on, says Myers. Especially if stairs haven't previously been an issue. At that point, it’s smart to see your doctor. They may look for signs of asthma, COPD, other lung diseases — or even heart issues.

How can I make climbing stairs easier? 

If you’ve ruled out an underlying health issue, increasing your endurance is going to be the best way to make stairs easier. The best way to do that? Climbing more stairs. Myers also says walking or jogging on an incline can help. These will get your body used to the motion and boost your overall fitness

Ask an Expert is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician, mental-health professional, or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. By submitting a question, you are agreeing to let theSkimm use it—in part or in full—and we may edit its answer for length and/or clarity.

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