Is my stepper doing more harm than good?

Jane mugshot for JQAI have been given a “step­per”, the giver think­ing it would help me get stronger and be able to climb stairs more eas­ily. I know that at first after exer­cising one feels muscle ache, but I am wor­ried in case it is doing more harm than good to my knees and hips.

Stair-​climbing is not only one of the basic activ­it­ies of every­day life, but also an excel­lent “free” chunk of exer­cise, help­ing to keep muscles and bones strong, knee joints pro­tec­ted, and heart and lungs healthy. The more stairs you climb, the more you will be able to climb with min­imum effort. But you are far from alone in strug­gling with the stairs: half of all women over 55 years old lack suf­fi­cient leg strength to climb stairs without using a hand rail.

It sounds as though you have a “mini step­per”, rather than the full-​sized kind found in gyms. The step­per mim­ics the action of stair climb­ing, so you can build muscle strength on the spot. I would sug­gest this equip­ment will be most use­ful if the fol­low­ing apply:

• you have reas­on­able heart and lung fit­ness (eg, you can com­fort­ably walk three miles)
• you are not very over­weight
• you do not have low back pain
• you do not have a heart con­di­tion or high blood pres­sure
• you do not have weak­ness on one side of your body
• your bal­ance is good

As you say, you should expect some muscle aches over the 48 hours after you go on the step­per, but this should really only hap­pen the first couple of times. If you reg­u­larly get pain after exer­cising, espe­cially from your joints or back, the step­per may not be the right tool for you.

Unless you suf­fer from arth­ritis, back pain or other med­ical con­di­tions affect­ing your hips and knees, there is no reason why the step­per should be harm­ful, as long as you are using good step tech­nique (see below) and not over­do­ing things. By middle age, creaky or achy knees are a com­mon con­cern, but often this is dir­ectly related to hav­ing neg­lected our muscles so they no longer pro­tect or sup­port the joints prop­erly.

These tips are import­ant to ensure that your step­per workout is effect­ive:

• stand tall at all times, not lean­ing for­wards or push­ing your bot­tom back
• don’t rock from side to side as you step: try to keep hips level through­out
• keep your feet point­ing for­wards and check that your knees fol­low the same line as your big and second toes
• try to work towards slower, deeper steps with con­trol rather than fast, shal­low steps

As with all unfa­mil­iar exer­cise, start cau­tiously and build your workout gradu­ally. Keep a log and increase your step times by eg 1 minute each week.

There are many altern­at­ive ways of improv­ing your stair-​climbing strength. Just prac­tising step­ping up on to the first stair and back­wards down in a steady con­tinu­ous rhythm for sev­eral minutes a day (again, increas­ing the time gradu­ally) can be pretty effect­ive.

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