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Moving to a bungalow or flat seems like a sensible move for many of us as we get older. But can this have a negative effect on physical fitness? Georgia Lewis talks to a physiotherapist to find out, before her own legs start withering away.
Have you heard of bungalow legs? It’s something that happens to you if you live in a single-storey home, and don’t climb stairs much.
Put simply, your legs get weak. And yes, this is really a thing.
Not all houses are built equal
As an Australian child living in England, I was in awe of our two-storey Cambridgeshire house and loved bouncing down the stairs on my bum. When we returned to Australia, I was dismayed to return to bungalow life. Even though our Wagga Wagga house had a much bigger floor area.
I mostly like living over two floors, but my two club feet, arthritic knees, and left ankle frequently disagree
Now I’m back in the UK and I’m the proud owner of a semi with stairs. Whilst I mostly like living over two floors, my two club feet, arthritic knees, and left ankle frequently disagree. Before I’ve loosened up my muscles and joints in the shower, I can often be seen in the mornings clinging to the banister, making my way downstairs like a clumsy upright crab.
This causes me to look wistfully at the cute bungalow around the corner. Is it time for me to go back to single-storey living? Or if I give up on stairs, am I giving up on life?
Worse still, would I end up developing so-called bungalow legs if I sold the semi? Would I hasten my own physical decline, watching my already unimpressive leg muscles waste away, simply by living in a house where I get to sleep on the same floor as my kitchen?
Leg muscles love stairs
Helen O’Leary, physiotherapist and director of Complete Pilates, says that living in a house with stairs can be a great way to increase your step count, boost leg strength and help with conditioning, whether you’re going upstairs or down. You can even get a quick cardiovascular boost every time you use the stairs. It’s not just about legs.
…we use our muscles to absorb energy and control our descent, especially the quads at the front of our legs.
“Stairs challenge your legs in different ways than normal walking, and going up and down stairs works your legs in different ways,” she says. “For example, when we walk upstairs, we need power from muscles such as our glutes, quadriceps and calves to help propulsion forwards and upwards.”
Whilst when you go downstairs, Helen says, we use our muscles to absorb energy and control our descent, especially the quads at the front of our legs.
On the way down the stairs, we need our muscles to absorb energy and control our descent, particularly our quadricep muscles at the front of our legs. Using the stairs requires more energy than say walking, therefore we get a greater cardiovascular effort which contributes to our overall fitness.”
OK, so I’m tempted to maintain my upstairs-downstairs existence for a wee bit longer.
Are there any down sides to having stairs?
Helen says there are however some instances where living with stairs can damage your physical health. These include conditions that affect your muscular or skeletal system (er, that’d be me then…), cardiovascular system, or neurological system, all of which can make stairs a challenge.
“This might be because taking the stairs causes you pain. Or because it wears you out physically and you’re unable to complete other tasks. Perhaps because you find balancing on the stairs hard, and are worried it might cause a fall,” Helen explains.
“there are however some instances where living with stairs can damage your physical health”
“In these instances, having to use the stairs continually throughout the day in your own home can be detrimental to physical health by causing more pain, increasing fatigue or breathlessness or it may become unsafe.”
With knees and ankles that are about 20 years older than I am, what should I do? I could sell up, find myself a nice step-free house and risk bungalow legs, but that sounds a bit drastic.
How can you avoid bungalow legs if you don’t have stairs?
Helen says there are rails and walking aids that can make climbing stairs easier, without having to go the whole hog and install a stairlift. And, unsurprisingly, seeing a physiotherapist about an exercise programme to help strengthen the muscles and cardiovascular system is a good idea.
In particular, Helen recommends squats, sitting-to-standing exercises with a chair, supported lunges, and heel raises. All of which can be done at home without forking out for expensive exercise equipment.
Finally, Helen advises: “When you’re outside, consider using stairs wherever you go – whether at the shopping centre, taking stairs instead of the lift – substitute what you used to do at home out in the world!”
That all seems like a pretty good plan to me. Long may bungalow legs be avoided! Even if one day I cave in and make an offer on the house around the corner. Or maybe I could compromise and buy a crofter cottage in the middle of nowhere. So I can still exercise my corgi-like pins every time I need to buy a loaf of bread.
In a career that has spanned Australia, the Middle East and the UK, Georgia has written about all sorts of things, including sex, cars, food, oil and gas, insurance, fashion, travel, workplace safety, health, religious affairs, glass and glazing… When she’s not writing words for fun and profit, she can usually be found with a glass of something French and red in her hand.
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