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Steps and Stairs for fitness

Steps and Stairs for fitness

A walk up the wooden hill was always the route to childhood bedtimes. In adulthood, stairs and steps can be a route to fitness and weight loss. Stair climbing, stair machines and step classes can all take your exercise routine to another level.

There is a theory that if staircases were invented now, they would never be allowed in our homes or buildings. This is because they are one of the biggest causes of accidents due to slips, trips and falls. Designing safe staircases is a technical challenge – steps must be even and correctly sized. Anyone who has ever walked on an old staircase will appreciate how critical it is that a flight of stairs is not too steep and evenly designed.

Fortunately stairs have been around for long enough that we are expected to learn to use them. Otherwise we would all have to live in one-floor houses, and we would be rather stuck if there were no lifts in office blocks or high-rise flats.

As well as letting us reach our upper floors, escape from buildings in emergencies and defend us against the older models of Daleks, stairs and steps are very useful fitness aids. Because of the need to lift body weight against gravity, climbing stairs burns more calories than walking or running on the flat, and can be done with less impact on joints.

Unless inside a very tall building, most people will run out of stairs to climb before they have had a sufficient workout. The obvious solution of turning round and descending again can be hard on the knees, due to the braking and balance needed. This is why many hill walkers will say that they prefer climbing even though it is more effort, because of the stress on knees caused by descents.

To produce an endless staircase, there is a mechanical solution. Stair climbing machines are often found in gyms, and are also available as home workout equipment. Fitted with handrails (but don’t lean on them, that’s cheating) and sometimes with TV screens, these machines are excellent for cardiovascular health and for toning leg, buttock and body core muscles.

If your everyday use of stairs is not enough, there is of course a workout designed around steps. Step aerobics classes have been around since the late 1980s, and have stood the test of time due to being a fun and accessible workout. The slightly dated image of step classes as being all legwarmers and leotards is totally unjustified – this form of exercise is still very much with us and still good for us.

Step aerobics is a lot of fun, as are most classes done to the rhythm of music. You have to concentrate on moves and foot placement (you don’t want to fall off your step) so it is also a good mental workout. Worries and other thoughts don’t last long in a step class as you become absorbed in what you are doing. Those described as ‘choreographically challenged’ (or ‘with two left feet’) will find step classes difficult, but with determination and practice you’ll soon be in time with everyone else.

All you need for a step class is normal exercise wear and a good pair of trainers. Make sure soles do not have deep ridges so that they don’t catch on the edge of the step. More advanced classes use hand held weights while stepping – don’t feel compelled to do this if it seems too much for you.

Step aerobics was invented as a reduced-impact form of aerobics, designed to be easier on the joints than jumping and bouncing on the flat. Step is supposed to be better for those with knee problems – but incorrect step technique or slips can actually cause knee injuries. Check with your instructor before starting a step class if you do have knee or ankle problems – a good instructor should always ask this of any newcomers.

The important tips for safe stepping are:

  • Use the correct height of step. Four inches is the usual height for beginners, but whatever you choose the step must not make your knee bend beyond 90 degrees in use.
  • Make sure your whole foot is on the step and that your foot is placed flat down as part of the movement. Do not step just on to your toes and then down again.
  • Look what you are doing – obvious as it seems, slipping off the step can cause problems so watch where your feet go until you are really practiced.
  • Keep an eye on your posture while stepping - as always it is head up, shoulders back and pelvis tucked in.
  • Make sure there is enough space between you and the next stepper. If someone has jumped to the left when they should have stepped to the right, the result should be a fit of giggles not a painful collision!

Happy stepping!