There is no better place to be in this summer of COVID-19 than outdoors, where fresh air and open spaces reduce the risk of contracting the novel coronavirus. And that applies to exercise as well. “Taking your workout outdoors is the smart way to train,” says Ann Li, family physician, certified personal trainer and assistant professor in the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Toronto. “Exercising outdoors is where we can distance ourselves the farthest and safest,” she adds.
We’re not just talking aerobic exercise such as cycling, running or walking, but resistance workouts, too. Because if you’ve got some stairs nearby, you can create a regimen that rolls three workouts in one: cardio, strength and plyometric movements such as leaps, jumps and bounds. Using stadium bleachers, the entry staircase at your local school, or steps in parks, playgrounds and nature preserves, you can get an outdoor workout that improves heart and lung functioning, builds muscular strength and endurance and does so safely within social distancing guidelines – and all free.
That’s what sold Christina Delzenero, 41, of Erie, Colo., on stairs training. “I’m a trail hiker, but with little social distancing on the trails I use, I needed an alternative workout that challenged me yet could be done safely,” she says.
Her trainer, Jim Bathurst, strength coach and head of fitness of the online coaching program Nerd Fitness, is an advocate for underused training methods in the age of covid-19. “When we can’t control our environment, but we are flexible with new ways to exercise, we are better able to stick to a workout regimen and ultimately to maintaining a healthy lifestyle,” he says. “Outdoor stair workouts address this situation perfectly.”
Especially if your preference is cardio. That’s because stairs offer so many options to kick your cardio to the next level of performance. “One of the immediate aerobic benefits of stair climbing is it gets your heart rate up quicker than running, jogging or walking,” says Ajay Rampersad, professor of exercise physiology at Humber College in Toronto and founder of the health promotion website MyWellnessSchool.com.
“Since you’re moving against gravity during stair climbing, your heart rate increases, which means your heart is working more efficiently to pump oxygen and blood to the muscles,” he adds. “And being on an incline, stairs engage hip muscles more than workouts performed on a flat surface.” This is especially important these days, when staying indoors means we are sitting more and using our hips less.
From a pandemic perspective, stair workouts provide another carry-over benefit, too. “Stair climbing is very functional and translates well to our day-to-day life,” says Dixie Stanforth, associate professor of instruction in the Department of Kinesiology and Health Education at the University of Texas at Austin. “Compared to an elliptical or even stair machine, a stair workout mimics the biomechanics of what we do every time we take the steps,” she says. With elevators being a potential risk factor in the spread of the coronavirus, stair workouts are a great training tool for developing the muscular strength and endurance to handle multiple staircases as a potential alternative to elevator use.
Stair workouts are ideal for the time-crunched athlete, as well. Tim Hughes, certified strength and conditioning coach and owner of Hughes Health and Wellness in Toronto, prefers stair workouts to strenuous distance runs. “Compared to running long distance, stair climbing counters the pull of gravity, forcing me to work harder and burn more calories in a shorter amount of time,” he says.
And you don’t have to be a top-tier athlete to reap the benefits of working the stairs. “Stair workouts can accommodate people of all ability levels from beginner to advanced,” says Bathurst.
One group of people who should approach stair training with caution, however, is those who have a history of leg and knee trouble. “Stair climbing can be an excellent exercise to build both cardiovascular fitness and leg strength,” says Monica Graham, physical therapist at Insideout Physiotherapy and Wellness Group in Toronto. “However, if you are currently experiencing back or knee problems or find that climbing stairs causes knee pain, you should consult with a physical therapist or other appropriate health-care professionals before determining if it is the right exercise for you.”
If you are stair climbing for the first time, Bathurst advises taking it slowly. “You may think you need to sprint up the steps for an effective workout, but that’s not so. Walking up the steps to start can be decidedly challenging for many. Pumping your arms at the same time, gets your upper body working, too, and further elevates your heart rate. ”
When that gets too easy, Bathurst suggests taking the steps two at a time and for an upper body exercise, add some incline push-ups. To perform, get into a push-up position with your hands on an upper step and your feet several steps down. Lower the body by pressing your chest into the step. Or try the challenging workout he created for his client Christina Delzenero: Climb the steps two at time for 60 seconds (if it’s a short staircase, go up and down for the same duration; careful on the descent!). Rest 15-30 seconds. Then perform a set of jump squats for 30 seconds. Repeat the cycle four times, two to three times a week.
“These workouts have increased my leg strength and endurance, so I’m able to climb faster without getting winded as easily,” Delzenero says. “Consequently, I finish the workout feeling pretty strong and proud of myself.”
Progressing up the chain of difficulty, Stanforth suggests adding side shuffles by ascending the stairs sideways, which works the underutilized gluteus medius muscle (side hip muscle). “Mix that with tricep dips for a complementary upper body movement,” she advises.
And if you’re ready for a high-octane workout, Hughes recommends doing a HIIT routine, such as sprinting up the stairs for 30 seconds then recovering by walking back down for 30 seconds. Repeat the cycle three to four times, progressively adding more cycles and/or incrementally adding more time to the work phase.
As an alternative to HIIT, the well-seasoned athlete might also want to try plyometric training. “Plyometrics involve movements like leaps, bounds, and jumps,” says Rampersad. “These movements improve power output which is the ability for muscles to move as fast as possible over a distance.” To increase your power, Rampersad suggests performing leaping body squats up the staircase; start by crouching into the squat position, then leap onto the next step landing on both feet. Pause. Squat. Leap. Repeat.
Regardless of one’s level of athletic ability, however, all stair climbers should follow Stanforth’s parting advice: “Careful and cautious on the descent to avoid injury.”
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Lorne Opler, is an adjunct professor of fitness and health promotion at Humber College and a certified strength and conditioning specialist in Toronto. Visit his website at: www.trainerlorne.com.