Rumor has it that fitness buff, Madonna, would climb stairs (50 flights according to one unconfirmed report!) when she would be on tour and would not be able to do her usual workout. Athletes have a similar workout. They use sports stadium bleacher stairs to improve muscular endurance in the legs and increase cardiovascular stamina. Stair climbing is a legitimate form of exercise that has been mimicked by various fitness equipment companies who have invented mechanical and electronic "stairclimbers and steppers".
A reader who described herself as a "couch potato trying to get back in shape before the holidays" wanted tips on the proper and safe way to climb stairs as her main form of exercise. Another reader who lives in an apartment building had more specific questions about how she and her husband could use the stairs as their medium of exercise. She wanted to know if it was a safe form of exercise, when was the best time to do it, and how she could alleviate the boredom that might arise.
Many people cannot find time to exercise because of work, traffic, or inappropriate surroundings (readers complain of not being able to go for long walks because of pollution or fear of attack from dogs, muggers, etc.). Stair climbing exercise programs just might be the practical solution to their problems. Here is a guide to "climbing the stairs to fitness".
Benefits of stair climbing.
Stair climbing uses the muscles of the legs, in particular the quadriceps (front of the thighs) and the buttocks. It can be an intense activity both for the heart and leg muscles because you are carrying your body weight against gravity. It is low impact and safe for the knee joints for so long as you follow the guidelines of not doing too much too soon and you do not have any existing knee problems that may be aggravated.
If you have such a problem, consult an orthopedic or sports medicine doctor before starting. In terms of calorie burning, it is time-efficient because you can burn a large amount of calories in a short period of time - approximately 300 calorie for thirty minutes (actual caloric expenditure depends on body weight and rate of climbing).
If you have just begun to climb stairs for exercise -- you may find yourself out of breath after a few flights or you may find that your thigh muscles are "burning". To help your muscles and heart adjust safely; climb two flights of stairs then walk around the entire floor of that level or march in place at the stair landing for a few minutes.
Climb another two flights and walk around or march in place again, etc. You should do this for only ten to fifteen minutes the first week. Add another five minutes every week. Eventually you will be able to climb all the flights of stairs without having to walk around the floor or march in place at the landing to regain your breath.
There is more stress to your knees coming down the stairs than there is climbing up because your muscles and connective tissue are being used as "brakes" as your body goes towards the pull of gravity. Either take the elevator down or, if you don't want to lose your "momentum", you can go down one flight at a time with an interval of walking around each floor. This way you are not putting an overload on your knees by walking straight down many flights of stairs.
Warm-up by walking around your office or apartment for at least five minutes. Cool-down by walking around for another five to ten minutes. Then stretch the quadriceps and hamstrings (front and back of the thighs) and the calves (back of the lower leg).
Proper climbing posture.
Proper climbing posture means leaning forward slightly from the hips with the back straight. At no time, should you be rounded in the lower back area. Look forward, keeping your eye on the stairs from time to time without looking down with a bent head the whole time. Avoid over-straightening your knees as you climb up. Place your whole foot on the step. Avoid climbing with your heels hanging off the edge because you can injure your Achilles tendon, which connects your calf to your heel.
Wear good supportive shoes. The best would be "cross-training" or aerobic shoes. Running shoes do not give your feet enough lateral support.
Drink water before, during (at your office or apartment) and after the sessions. Danger signals of doing too much are hyperventilation, a very red flushed face, dizziness, nausea, disorientation, heart palpitations, etc. Pay attention also, to how your knees and lower back feel after a few weeks of starting a stair-climbing program.
To prevent overuse injuries caused by repetitively doing the same activity repeatedly, try alternating days of stair climbing with another activity (walking, swimming, cycling, dancing, etc.).
Other safety factors to consider are light and ventilation. Make sure there is enough light in the stairwell for you to watch your steps. Good ventilation is a must. Working out in a hot and poorly ventilated place is not a good idea.
Lastly, consider the security factor. If you had to yell for help because you fell down or someone was trying to molest or rob you, would anybody hear you? Sometimes, the stairs can be the loneliest, most desolate area of the whole building.
"Total body" interval program.
A time-efficient "total body" program can be set up using intervals of two or three minutes of stair climbing with one minute of muscle-toning exercises. Exercises for specific muscle groups can be done on the stair landings using either body weight (for example, push-ups against the wall for the chest and triceps dips on the stairs to tone the back of the arms) or lightweight inexpensive exercise rubber bands which you carry in your pocket. If you designate your office or apartment as the "home base", you can use dumbbells and ankle weights. Abdominal exercises would be part of the last cycle since you have to do them lying down.
A sample program would be: five minutes of a warm-up, thirty to forty minutes of intervals (2- 3 minutes climbing, 1 minute muscle toning), five to ten minutes of a cool-down and leg stretches, two to three minutes of abdominal exercises.
Best time to exercise.
The best time to exercise depends on your lifestyle. If you are using your office stairs, you may want to do this workout after office hours since you will be hot and sweaty when you finish. If you are using your apartment building stairs, early mornings or late afternoons are fine.
As one reader said "Let's face it, staircases aren't exactly the most exciting of places to keep repeatedly climbing". How do you prevent boredom from derailing your stair-climbing program? Cross-training or doing other activities helps. Using a portable stereo with invigorating music while you climb is another way. Keeping a daily logbook of how many minutes and how many flights you climbed plus setting small, realistic, measurable goals (like losing five pounds) then rewarding yourself when you reach those goals are proven methods to keep you motivated in your exercise program.