ALTHOUGH ATHLETES have run stadium steps for decades, America seems ready to proclaim stair climbing as the aerobic exercise of the 1990s. More office workers are choosing stairs instead of elevators. Aerobics classes are swelling with those who would rather step up and down on benches than dance to disco music.
Perhaps most astonishing is the number of people who are climbing stair machines in health clubs and at home.
According to Tom Doyle of the National Sporting Goods Association in Chicago, sales figures for stair climbing machines have increased faster than those of any other sporting goods product. Last year, devotees bought 356,000 machines; sales for 1990 are projected close to 800,000. (For comparison, annual sales of exercise bicycles remain steady at about 2.5-3 million machines.)
Walk into almost any fitness center, you will see members waiting to use stair climbing machines. Their great popularity stems not only from their aerobic benefits but also from their abilities to burn calories, to reduce fat -- particularly on the buttocks and thighs -- and to qualify as a low-impact sport.
The granddaddy of these machines is StairMaster, an electro-mechanical stair climber introduced to fitness centers in 1986. Often compared to the Nautilus exercise machinery for its innovative design, StairMaster has pedals which move up and down independently as you step on them. Different levels of resistance intensify the workout. The machine also provides a computer readout, based on your weight, of the number of calories you have expended during the exercise.
When the Downtown Athletic Club introduced stair climbing machines in 1987, members needed a lot of encouragement in order to try them. Now they are so popular that there's a 30-minute time limit on their use.
"It's the only kind of cardio-vascular exercise machine that's weight bearing, which means more calorie expenditure," says Jeff Smith, director of the DAC fitness center. "At the same time, there's no impact absorbed by the body. You have the same intensity of exercise but none of the trauma you can get from running or heavy-impact aerobics."
It appears the machines may become as standard in fitness clubs as showers. Ralph Cissne, director of advertising for the StairMaster Exercise Systems, estimates that the majority of the nation's roughly 7,000 health clubs have stair climbers or plan to purchase them. Two of the most popular top-of-the-line models are the StairMaster 4000, which costs roughly $2,200, and the Life Step, which costs about $3,200.
"Stair climbing machines are the hottest thing on the market today," says Cheryl Atkins, director of the new Greenspring Lifestyle Center. "Women in particular are very concerned about the area between the waist and the knees and the machines work well on that. And they burn a lot of calories in a short amount of time."
"The biggest benefit of the machine is the cardio-vascular conditioning. If you exercise on it more than 15 to 18 minutes, you begin to use fat as your primary fuel source," says Jim Kasoff, executive director of the Physical Performance Institute, which is part of the Maryland Center for Physical Therapy in Owings Mills.
For home exercisers, Sears carries several stair climbers ranging in cost from $129 to $300. However, Sonny Davis, owner of Princeton Sports, says many of his customers invest thousands of dollars in their home gyms. A popular combination, he says, is a Life Step climbing machine ($3,200), a Schwinn AirDyne bicycle ($695) and Bo-Flex training equipment ($795).
Beginners should approach stair climbing as cautiously as they would any rigorous aerobic exercise.