I’m 61 and very fit, but I still can’t walk up a flight of stairs without getting out of breath and my legs feeling weak. Why is this?
The answer to this puzzling question may lie in the different ways there are of being “very fit”. If you’ve been playing golf, pressing weights in the gym or swimming backstroke lengths three times a week for the past 30 years, for instance, each of these activities will have kept you fit, but in rather different kinds of ways, none of which may be very helpful when it comes to climbing stairs.
One of the basic principles of exercise is that if you choose to keep fit by doing a lot of one particular thing (playing football, spinning, aerobics, yoga, jogging or whatever else), your body will improve its fitness levels in very specific ways: those that help you to do your chosen activity or sport. So over the weeks and months you get rather good at what you’re doing, which is very satisfying and helps you feel fit.
But if you spend six months going to spinning or yoga classes and then take up a friend’s challenge for a game of squash, don’t expect to win! The combination of fitness and skills required is very different from those you’ve been hard at work perfecting, and although you will have a general level of fitness, it isn’t going to improve your squash performance overnight.
So to ensure you are maintaining all-round fitness, the best approach is to mix it up and keep on gradually increasing the challenge. If you jog for six months, try cycling or a rowing machine for the next six. If you’ve always been a swimmer, discover the joys of circuit training. If yoga’s your big thing, how about some low-impact aerobics alongside it?
Here’s another thought: it’s a rather embarrassing fact that most of us believe we are much fitter than we really are. In one major fitness survey market researchers found a third of us to be “fit” but classified nearly half of us as “Healthy in mind” or “Healthy in theory” – which suggests more thinking than doing! And as for climbing the stairs, an even more famous fitness survey found that one in eight men and a half of all women over 55 don’t have enough leg strength to climb stairs without using the hand rail.
So what kind of exercise is best for climbing stairs? Stair-climbing – which in its own right is an excellent every-day exercise. Set a goal, for instance, of climbing the stairs 3 times in one go every day next week. The following week make it four times each day. Then five and so on. After six weeks, you’ll be able to climb them while singing the Sound of Music at the top of your voice with no trouble!