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The Fiftysomething Workout: The Stairway to Fitness

A few stairs are all you need to build strength and balance while reaping cardiovascular benefits

By Linda Melone

Before you spend another dollar on an infomercial gadget or an expensive monthly gym membership, stop and take a look around your home. If it contains a stairway, you already have all the equipment you need to get in shape.

(MORE: 4 Ways to Turn Your Walk Into a Workout)

Stair climbing burns calories more efficiently than nearly any other form of cardiovascular exercise. A 140-pound person can burn between 500 and 600 calories in an hour of walking up stairs, according to the American College of Sports Medicine. That's equivalent to an hour of running at a 10-minute-mile pace. By comparison, stationary cycling burns approximately 350 calories per hour; brisk walking burns about 250 and tennis, about 450. Stair climbing also benefits your heart — just 30 minutes spread throughout the week is enough to create measurable cardiovascular benefits, according to a study in the Journal of Sports Science and Medicine.

The Stairway Workout

But climbing is far from the only exercise you can do on your stairway. To create a full-body home workout, you can mix and match the following moves, developed by certified strength and conditioning specialist Tom Holland, author of Beat the Gym: Personal Trainer Secrets Without the Personal Trainer Price Tag (Morrow, 2011). This workout alternates intervals of climbing with an array of strength, balance and flexibility exercises that take advantage of the architecture of stairs.

"Vary the intervals according to your fitness level," Holland advises. For example, if you haven't been working out a lot recently, you may want to start with 30-second intervals of stair climbing and work up to 60-second sets or longer as you gain more stamina. As you progress, you may begin doing your cardio intervals holding light dumbbells. (If you live in a single-story home or apartment, see if there's a local park with stairs or a school with bleacher steps where you can do your workouts.)

  • Warm up Spend 2 minutes walking up and down the stairs to get your heart rate up before you dive into your workout.
  • Hamstring stretch Stand on one leg. (Hold the banister or wall for balance if needed.) Place the heel of the other leg on the third or fourth stair (according to your flexibility) and bend forward at the hips until you feel a stretch. Hold for 30 seconds, then switch legs.
  • Stair push-ups The incline of the stairs makes this move easier for beginners, Holland says. Kneel or stand at the base of the steps, then place your hands on a stair at chest height in a push-up position. Keep your back straight as you lower yourself toward the stairs and push back up. Repeat at a moderate speed for 30 seconds.
  • Calf raises Hold on to the banister with one hand as you stand on the balls of your feet at the ledge of a step. Slowly lower your heels toward the ground, then squeeze your calves as you raise yourself back up. Pause briefly between raises. Repeat for 30 seconds. (If your calves feel especially tight, stand flat on the ground as you raise then lower your heels for 30 seconds.)
  • Cardio Walk up and down the stairs for 30 to 60 seconds.
  • Side step-ups Stand sideways on the bottom step (with your feet parallel to the stair). Step down, and then back up, with your outer foot. Repeat for 15 seconds and then switch sides. Hang on to the banister or wall for balance if necessary.
  • Balance challenge Stand on one foot at the base of the stairs, with a hand over the banister. To start, balance on one foot for 15 seconds, then switch sides for another 15 seconds. As you progress, try it without holding on and then try to maintain your balance for 30 seconds or longer. Too easy? Close your eyes.
  • Core strengthener Starting from the base of the stairs, get into a "plank," or push-up position with your hands on the third or fourth step. Keep your abdominal (stomach) muscles engaged and keep your body straight. Hold this position, without allowing your back to sag or your hips to rise, for 30 to 60 seconds. For a greater challenge, alternately raise one leg and then the other while maintaining the plank.
  • Cardio Walk up and down the stairs for 30 to 60 seconds.

(MORE: 5 Ways to Sneak Exercise Into Your Daily Routine)

  • Basic squats Stand with your feet shoulder width apart and your toes pointed out slightly (to 11:00 and 1:00). Place your hands on your hips and begin lowering yourself by bending at the knees and the hips. Keep your eyes focused straight ahead and your back straight as you lower yourself slowly into a sitting position with the tops of your thighs parallel to the floor, or as far as your own flexibility allows. Return to the starting position and repeat for 15 to 30 seconds.
  • Forward step-ups Start at the base of the stairway. Put one foot on the second step. Raise the other foot up to the step, lifting the knee, without landing on the step, then bring it back to the ground. Repeat for 30 or 60 seconds, then alternate feet. As you progress, increase the pace for a greater challenge or hold onto light dumbbells as you step up.
  • Repeat stair push-ups.
  • Cardio walk up and down the stairs for 30 to 60 seconds.
  • Cool Down Walk around (but not up and down the stairs) at a normal pace for 2 to 3 minutes.
  • Repeat hamstring stretch.

This is a basic workout. As we've noted, there are ways you can raise the duration and intensity as you get more comfortable with the exercises and gain flexibility. A stair workout like this makes it easy for you to measure your progress, says exercise physiologist Irv Rubenstein, founder of Nashville fitness center S.T.E.P.S. "If you can do five step-ups this week and 10 after a few weeks, you've doubled your work capacity."

That would be a step in the right direction — at a great price.

Linda Melone is a freelance writer based in southern California. Read More
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