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Safe step exercises to increase endurance for older adults
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Safe step exercises to increase endurance for older adults

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A recent study found that those who incorporate some type of weight training into their exercise routines were between 20 and 30 percent less likely to develop obesity.

Stair climbing is one of the best workouts to help with balance, endurance, and fall prevention.

Your ability to climb a flight of stairs is one of the great markers of health. It’s often used to gauge your mobility and stamina, fitness level after an injury, and whether it’s safe to resume sex after a heart attack. But stair climbing can offer much more.

“Stair climbing is an excellent form of overall exercise for older adults because it challenges multiple muscle groups at once, such as your quadriceps, glutes, and calves, as well as improves cardiovascular strength and endurance,” says Michelle Munley, a physical therapist with Harvard’s Spaulding Outpatient Center Peabody. “If you can safely and effectively navigate up and down stairs, you can stay more active in life.”

Before you start

There are different places where you can practice stair climbing, from gym stair machines to basic household stairs.

The type of stair doesn’t necessarily matter, but keep in mind that not all steps are created equal in terms of height, depth, and surfaces. Also, stairs that don’t have rails are more challenging and potentially more dangerous. “Choose stairs in a comfortable environment using steps you feel safe negotiating,” says Munley.

Also, know that going down stairs is just as important as going up. When you walk up the stairs, your glutes and quadriceps muscles perform concentric, or shortening, contractions. When you walk down, the muscles perform the opposite — an eccentric, or lengthening, contraction. “Both movements are needed to provide optimal muscle strength and function,” says Munley.

Stairs

When you’re ready

Consult your doctor before initiating a stair-climbing program, especially if you’ve had heart trouble, orthopedic conditions, or balance or mobility problems.

Then, get comfortable with the stair-climbing movement by practicing step-up exercises: stepping up and down using only one stairstep or a step-up platform. (This is a height-adjustable exercise tool found in most gyms and available to purchase online and in sporting goods stores.)

“Step-ups mimics the stair climbing movement, but with less effort, and can help people build up their strength and endurance before moving up to regular stair climbing,” says Munley. “Some people who are uneasy about climbing a full flight can feel more confident seeing only one step instead of 12.”

Stair-climbing exercises

Stairs

Here are three stair workouts you can try that use a gym stair-climbing machine or real steps with rails.

At the gym

Steady climbing: Set a stair-climbing machine to a comfortable resistance level and speed, and climb for five to 10 minutes. Lower or increase the speed as needed. Over time, try to increase your minutes, resistance level, or both.

Intervals: Begin the stair machine at a comfortable speed as a warm-up. Increase your speed or resistance to reach a moderate-intensity level (about 5 to 7 on a 10-point exertion scale) and climb for one to two minutes. Then reduce the intensity to a comfortable level again and climb for two minutes, or long enough to bring down your heart rate. Continue alternating between the two speeds for 10 to 20 minutes.

Note: A stair-climbing machine allows you to walk only in an upward motion. Munley suggests complementing your workout with leg press machine exercises, which mimic the muscle action of walking down stairs.

On real stairs

Choose a comfortable stairway that includes a rail for balance. Set a timer on your watch or phone and walk up and down one or two flights at a steady pace for five to 10 minutes. As you improve, try to increase your time, climb without using a rail, or climb more flights at one time.

Note: Always maintain good posture. Place your entire foot flat on the step. Don’t climb using your toes, which can overtax your calves. Hold rails or machine handles as needed for support and balance, but avoid pulling yourself forward. As you progress, you can climb stairs without holding on, or challenge yourself using steps without rails, like stadium stairs.

“Stair climbing can be a demanding and intense exercise, so always begin slowly, never rush yourself, and take breaks when needed,” says Munley.

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