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Take the Stairs or the Elevator? [UPDATED]

[ read time < 5 minutes ]

Some good choices are obvious.

It seems straightforward that consuming broccoli is better than eating donuts. But in the case of someone who is experiencing an episode of dangerously low blood sugar, a bite of broccoli isn’t going to help.

Likewise, when faced with the decision to take the stairs or take an elevator, it might seem that the best choice is clear. There are countless reasons to walk more and not many reasons to support being sedentary.

However, what if your knee hurts every time you take the stairs?

Or what if your knee doesn’t hurt during stair climbing, but you notice it aches later?

When does being more sedentary outweigh the benefits of being active?

When is it a good choice to take the elevator?

For my clients with knee pain, I often recommend that they temporarily avoid stairs.

Frequently, they protest:

“Isn’t it healthy for me to take the stairs?”
“Won’t I get weaker if I avoid the stairs?”

Walking up and down stairs requires you to use your leg muscles. It also puts pressure on your knees.

The inside of your knees are designed to withstand that pressure. And when the inside of your knees are strong and healthy, they do so without complaining.

But if your knees can't withstand the pressure, they will likely complain.

Your knees may complain while you're taking the stairs. You might feel sharp or dull knee pain.

Or they may complain later, after taking the stairs. In this case, the knees begin to feel sore, stiff, or achy several minutes or hours afterwards.

When knees complain, it means the pressure is too great.

Let's think about a slightly different situation. If you want strong arms, you wouldn’t lift a weight that causes elbow pain over and over again. Rather, you would use a lighter weight--one that you can lift with good form and without pain. And after a while, you would gradually use a slightly heavier weight until you worked up to your goal. The same is true for your lower body.

Someone taking the stairs puts all of their weight on one leg and then all of their weight on the other leg. This involves shallow squats on each leg. (You may watch a demonstration of this by scrolling to 2:28 within this video.)

If you get pain during or after these shallow squats, it means the weight of your body places more force on your knees than they can withstand.

Because it is the weight of your body-- and not an external weight that you are carrying -- it may feel like your knees should be able to handle it.

However, if they are complaining, your knees are telling you they can't handle the pressure. At least not right now.

Let's return to the above example of lifting a weight that is causing elbow pain. The better choice is to lift a lighter weight-- placing less pressure on the elbow, an amount of pressure that doesn't cause pain.

In the case of painful knees, the better choice is to place less pressure on the knees.

There are 3 strategies to immediately decrease knee pressure while taking the stairs.

  1. Rely on a handrail. Roughly 30 pounds, or about 14 kilograms, of pressure on the knees can be alleviated by pressing down on a handrail.

  2. Use a hiking pole, a crutch, or a cane. These devices also decrease knee pressure on the knees. And by using both the support of a device with one hand and the support of a handrail with the other hand, the knees will experience even more relief. (You may watch a demonstration of this by scrolling to 0:49 within this video.)

  3. Take each step one at a time. The typical way to use stairs is by using an alternating pattern-- placing one foot on the first step, the other foot on the next step, and so on. Rather than using this pattern, take the stairs one at a time, allowing each foot to rest on every step. And if one knee is more painful, protect it by leading with the other, pain-free leg (or less painful leg) when ascending stairs. And lead with the more painful leg when descending stairs. (You may watch a demonstration of this by scrolling to 1:16 within this video.)

Using one or more of these strategies may eliminate the complaints from your knees.

But if you continue to experience knee pain during or after stairs-- and you're in a building with an elevator-- the best choice for your knees is likely taking the available elevator.

I know, I know. Most active people wince at the idea of taking the elevator.

And I agree.

Taking the elevator is not the long-term solution.

I recommend using the elevator as a temporary strategy to decrease the pressure on your knees-- a strategy that is only a part of the complete solution.

The complete solution involves strengthening deep inside the knees. This prepares the knee joints to withstand the pressure required for pain-free stair negotiation. I offer this solution to my clients and to members of Better Knees for Life.


Better Knees for Life is a program for people with tolerable knee pain, offering step-by-step instructions that can be performed at home with very little equipment. It helps you strengthen your knees from the inside-out.

What people are saying about Better Knees for Life :

"BKL (Better Knees for Life) is an outstanding program -- with graded exercise programs and guidelines for advancing, and outstanding support with the Zoom sessions."

"It is almost like a computer algorithm. (That's how clear it is!)"

"I've already recommended BKL to 2-3 friends because of the noticeable difference in reducing pain in my left knee."

"I wish I had started years ago."

Better Knees for Life helps you get stronger, feel better and maybe best of all, feel more in control of your life.


For more information on safely strengthening your knees, read How to Grow Strong Knee Joints and Can You Rebuild Knee Cartilage?

To determine if we may be a good fit to work together to overcome your knee pain -- schedule a Strategy Session by clicking here.

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