Stair Climbing

Ups the Ante of a Workout

Wonderful walks are both relaxing and invigorating, but if you want to kick butt, literally—building strong glutes and thighs; strengthening your core, which helps improve posture and tighten abs; and stepping up to cardiovascular fitness quickly and efficiently—try stair climbing. Wayne Wescott, Ph.D., renowned exercise physiologist, military fitness consultant and author of Get Stronger, Feel Younger, states that climbing stairs is one of the more vigorous cardiovascular workouts you can do.

Pushing your whole body weight up vertically burns lots of calories and uses lots of energy quickly. I often advise flatlanders to find some stairs in an office building or stadium and climb them regularly to strengthen their legs and increase their endurance.

Although I have a one-story house, I have found two stair workouts I like to play with. On one, I walk about two miles on a wooded path by the river to a triple flight of stairs that takes me onto a bridge where I can then double back to my car along shaded city streets. It’s my mini-Mount Everest and it really perks up the entire workout.

For a more steady and challenging stair workout, I use a Stairmaster at the gym, the kind with an actual revolving staircase. The trick is to start out slowly and find a pace that you can maintain without gasping for breath. I start at level one and move up to level four, and in five minutes my heart rate is in my target zone of 70 percent of its maximum, a feat I rarely reach when walking on a treadmill.

Plus, you don’t have to trudge away at those stairs for 30 minutes. As Wescott points out, it’s better to break up the day’s 30-minute workout into three 10-minute sessions. That’s because the body builds cardiovascular endurance during its recovery mode. Three shorter workouts deliver three recovery periods, and the workout is less daunting.

Neither of my stair workouts requires me to go down stairs, which can be hard on joints, ligaments and tendons. In an office building, you can climb up the stairs and recover while taking the elevator back down. Then, why not make another ascent? While waiting for the elevator, or any time vigorous exercise has elevated heart rate, be sure to walk around to ease yourself back into recovery mode. When hiking hills, it also helps to use walking poles, which serves to take the weight off of knees when going downhill.

Here are more of Wescott’s tips that prove helpful:

-- Wear good running or cross-training or walking shoes for good support. You can save your knee joints from damage by wearing the right shoes.

-- Warm up first. Walk around for a few minutes before starting an ascent or jumping on a machine.

-- Stretch after a workout—not before. Gently stretch quadriceps, calves and hamstrings.

-- Lean slightly forward as you climb. But keep your back straight and your head in alignment.

-- Keep your knees soft.  Don’t lock them out as you push up.

-- Try intervals. This is a perfect workout for interval training, which studies like those conducted at The University of Alabama and Southern Connecticut State University show gets one fit faster. Work hard, then back off a bit, then go for it again. This comes naturally with stair climbing, as you tend to get out of breath anyway and need to kick back

-- Drink up afterwards. This is a challenging workout and you need to rehydrate.

-- Be careful going down. If you must walk back down stairs, take your time; step down deliberately and carefully and use the handrails to take pressure off your knees. People with arthritis or other painful inflammation of the knee should avoid going down stairs.

While I love walking for regular exercise, mentally, it’s easier to tackle some stairs to boost my heart, rather than focus on walking fast, which takes more concentration. Consider the comparative calorie burn: In a 150-pound person, 10 minutes of moderately brisk, 3-miles-per-hour walking burns about 40 calories, while 10 minutes of running up stairs burns 179.

Be sure to warm up and cool down for five to 10 minutes before and after any workout. And always check with a physician before undertaking a vigorous activity like stair climbing. Then go out and have some good-hearted fun.

Maggie Spilner has been writing about health and fitness for 25 years, including 17 as an editor at
Prevention Magazine. Her books include Prevention’s Complete Book of Walking for Health and Walk Your Way Through Menopause. See for information on Spilner’s walking vacations.

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